Enough with the “willy-waving,” already! Looking for a few great women

After my talk on speechwriting last month at the United Nations, an attendee came up and said that she and a number of women who were sitting around her were offended that all but one of the speech excerpts that I showed and read were speeches by men. I had no decent answer for her, though I later regretted not asking her which great women speakers she recommended I study. But I determined to add some examples into my constantly-evolving “speechwriting jam session.” And I wanted to do it urgently, before my talk March 9 at the Ragan Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference.

I found a nice cache at The Eloquent Woman blog, of which I selected one speech to play at the Ragan show.

And then on Saturday there came this piece from Mary Beard in the Guardian, which touches pungently on the lack of women in the history of oratory:

Yet there is something problematic about the very notion of “great oratory”. For a start, it is an almost entirely male category. I doubt that there have been many, if any, “great” female orators, at least as “great oratory” has traditionally been defined. …

I’m not meaning by this that women have in some way “failed” to master the art of public speaking. Not at all. The point is that “great oratory” is a category that has been consistently defined to exclude them—and the more you search for the roots of our own oratorical traditions in the classical past, the more obvious that exclusion becomes. In ancient Greece and Rome the ability to speak in public and to persuade your fellow (male) citizens was almost as much a defining attribute of the male of the species as a penis was. Men spoke, women kept quiet—that’s what made them women. “Great oratory” even now has not shaken off its male, “willy-waving” origins. We are not even sure, I suspect, what a great woman’s speech would sound like.

Readers, help a brother out: If you wanted to add more women speakers to a rhetoric highlight reel to be performed or shown on the screen, who would those women be, and which speeches would you show? —DM

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