Seventy-six years ago this month, Helen Gahagan Douglas squared off against Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare in a historic speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives.
She was among the first to publicly denounce the smear campaign by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and her words have gone down in history.
A Democratic member of Congress from California, Douglas had taken advantage of her international fame from her previous career as a Broadway actress and opera singer to gain support for her political agenda — and public speaking was one of her leading strategies.
She kept up a hectic speaking itinerary around the country on behalf of issues like postwar price controls, labor rights, and the regulation of atomic energy.
She spoke out forcefully for civil rights at a time when Jim Crow segregation laws prevailed in much of the country. She was the first white member of Congress to hire Black Americans on her staff, and she pushed to desegregate restaurants in Washington DC.
And in another courageous stand, she used her voice during a dark chapter in our country’s history by standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, then investigating alleged Communist sympathizers.
Helen Gahagan Douglas is one of my heroes — which is why I chose her image for the cover of my new anthology of women’s speech, Speaking While Female: 50 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women. The cover shows a portrait bust of Douglas sculpted in 1935 by American artist Isamu Noguchi.
With speeches from the earliest days of our nation right up to the present, this anthology will be a counter-narrative to the story we’ve always heard — that the greatest speeches in history were given by “great men.”
Because it’s not true.
From the earliest days of the nation to the present, women have been speaking in public — sharing their knowledge and ideas, making an impact with their words, influencing the course of the nation. This collection will finally tell the story of America through women’s voices.
The content comes from my Speaking While Female Speech Bank, a unique online resource and the world’s largest online collection of women’s speeches.
Speaking While Female: 50 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women will extend the project with essays and introductions that set each speech in context to tell the continuous, ever-evolving story of America.
Some of the speeches in the anthology were given by individuals whose names you probably know: Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan. Their voices deserve to be heard, and they’ll be there.
But there will also be others whose names you may not know, women neglected by history:
- Deborah Sampson Gannett, who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, then in 1802 launched a stage tour and became American’s first professional female public speaker.
- Sarah Winnemucca, a member of the Northern Paiute tribe who testified to Congressmen in 1884 how her people were evicted from their homeland and forcibly marched 350 miles in the winter, while babies froze to death in their mothers’ arms.
- Lillian Wald, a nurse and reformer who dedicated her life to helping immigrants, the poor, women and minorities. She spoke in 1896 about the crowded, miserable, desperate conditions in inner-city immigrant neighborhoods.
- Maggie Lena Walker, the first Black American woman to charter a bank and become a bank president, who in 1901 spoke about practical economic steps that would strengthen her community and improve the lives of African American women.
- Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese-American minister and women’s rights campaigner who spoke out passionately in 1915 on behalf of “the long submerged women of China.”
- Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone, a Muscogee who spoke in 1933 about historic wrongs committed against indigenous Americans and “the invasion that threatened to come in and destroy everything we held nearest and dearest to our hearts.”
To finance the book, I’m launching a Kickstarter campaign that goes live Tuesday, March 1, and will run throughout the month of March, Women’s History Month.
I’m asking you — fellow speechwriters and lovers of the spoken word — to support this project.
Would you please take a minute to sign up on Kickstarter now to join the pre-launch so you’ll be notified when it goes live? It’ll take 10 seconds. Doing that today ensures a stronger launch tomorrow, since the algorithm looks at pre-interest when determining reach on the platform.
Once we launch, please buy a book or two, or just donate a few dollars. Share the link with kindred spirits. If you buy two books, we’ll donate one to Girls Inc. DC, a nonprofit that helps girls lead healthy lives, achieve in school, and speak up for themselves and others.
That’s exactly what Helen Gahagan Douglas did on March 29, 1946, when she stood up on the floor of the US House of Representatives.
“Mr. Speaker,” she began, “I think we all know that Communism is no real threat to the democratic institutions of our country. But the irresponsible way the term “Communism” is used to falsely label the thing that majority of us believe in can be very dangerous.”
With that speech — known as “My Democratic Credo” — she took a bold and principled stand at a time of massive political cravennes and cowardice. You can find her speech here, on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank.
Firing back against the speech, her critics viciously attacked her as a pro-Red and a Communist “fellow traveler.” When she later campaigned for the Senate, in 1950, her primary opponent called her “the pink lady” and said she was “pink right down to her underwear” — a reference to her supposed Communist sympathies.
In no small part due to that speech, Douglas lost her bid for the Senate. Her political career was over.
Many innocent people lost their jobs, their careers, and their reputations during the Red Scare because of a ruthless campaign of fear, mass hysteria, lies, and insinuation.
But Helen Gahagan Douglas spoke out for reason, decency, and truth. Let’s honor her words — and provide powerful role models women and girls — the voices of the future.
Thank you for supporting this campaign, and women’s voices.
Take a minute to sign up on Kickstarter now.