Rhetorical questions

With the annual round of party conferences in full swing, it’s peak season for old-fashioned political speech-making, with speeches crafted in advance to be delivered in person to a live and often boisterous audience. I say ‘old-fashioned’ because in the age of TV, Twitter and TED talks, the traditional art of political oratory is often said to be in decline: there’s little doubt that it’s become less important as other genres and media have become more so. But ‘great’ political speeches still have an iconic cultural status, as Phillip Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, reminded Times readers last week when he published a list of his all-time top ten. They were:

  1. Winston Churchill, ‘This was their finest hour’ (1940)
  2. Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ (1968)
  3. Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address (1863)
  4. Queen Elizabeth I, speech to the troops at Tilbury (1588)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘A tryst with destiny’, speech greeting India’s independence (1947)
  6. Nelson Mandela, ‘an ideal for which I am prepared to die’, speech to the South African Supreme Court (1964)
  7. John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, Inauguration speech (1961)
  8. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  9. William Wilberforce, ‘Let us put an end to this inhuman traffic’, anti-slavery speech in Parliament (1789)
  10. Barack Obama, ‘I have never been more hopeful’ (2012).

This list (though limited to speeches made in English—lest we forget, other languages are available) is in many ways traditional and predictable. It obeys, for instance, the unbreakable rule that any ranking compiled for a British publication must put Churchill in first place (whereas the US equivalent will always give that honour to an American). It includes a number of speakers who turn up on just about every list of this type—not only Churchill, King and Kennedy but also Lincoln, Mandela and–increasingly–Obama. And as is also traditional, there are not many women on it.

In fairness to Phillip Collins I should say that two women is actually a higher number than most list-compilers manage. Trawling through a sample of other ‘greatest speeches of all time’ lists reveals that most of them feature just one token woman, while some contain none at all. Elizabeth I, Collins’s first female choice, quite often fills the token woman slot, despite the fact that she may never have made the speech in question (the text we are familiar with–the one about having the heart of a King in the body of a weak and feeble woman–appeared in a letter written nearly 40 years after the event). Other popular picks include the ‘iron ladies’ Margaret Thatcher (‘the lady’s not for turning’) and Golda Meir. The more progressive list-compilers sometimes award the prize, as Collins does, to a suffragist/suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, or occasionally Sojourner Truth.

It is not surprising that men predominate in the historical canon of great speeches. The speeches we remember as ‘great’ are typically delivered by someone in a position of authority (six of the speakers in the Times top ten spoke as the monarch, president or prime minister of their country), often on some solemn national occasion (like the moment preceding or following a battle, the inauguration of a president or, in Nehru’s case, a new independent state) and in an august public setting (like the courtroom for Mandela, or Parliament for Churchill and Wilberforce). With few exceptions, until the 20th century, women were excluded from most of the roles and many of the public forums where this kind of ‘high’ oratory was practised.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s immediate predecessors, the abolitionist and suffragist women of the 19th century, fought a prolonged battle for their right to advance their causes through public speaking. The problem they faced was that women’s public speech, particularly if the audience was mixed and the subject political, was not merely disapproved of, it was considered scandalous, and condemned in much the same terms as adultery and prostitution. In the 1830s, Congregationalist ministers in the USA issued a letter warning that a woman who presumed to give lectures, or address a political meeting, would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour in the dust’. This attitude provoked considerable anger among politically active women. In 1848, when delegates assembled in Seneca Falls for the first Convention on Women’s Rights, they adopted two tartly-worded resolutions hitting back at their critics and insisting on their right to a public platform:

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in the feats of the circus.

Resolved, therefore, That, …it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held.

But that was 170 years ago. Today, though women continue to be attacked for speaking out (the contemporary weapons of choice being rape and death threats rather than warnings of infertility and eternal damnation), they do now have a voice in all the forums which once excluded them. They speak in courtrooms, to congregations, in Parliament and at party conferences. So why don’t they feature in lists of great speakers from the late 20th and 21st centuries? Do we really have to go back to 1908, let alone 1588, to find a truly memorable speech by a woman?

The Centre for Women and Democracy (CWD) says ‘of course not’. They point out that there’s a vicious circle: women don’t get included in the standard lists and anthologies of great speeches, so their words aren’t preserved and studied, and that just reinforces the idea that women don’t do oratory. To redress the balance, the CWD website offers its own list of thirteen outstanding political speeches by women. It includes most of the usual suspects (no Elizabeth I, but we do get Emmeline Pankhurst, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Thatcher), along with notable speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, Barbara Castle, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton (her Beijing ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech), Bernadette Devlin, Indira Gandhi, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Mary Robinson, Anita Roddick and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There are many more of these ‘alternative’ lists of great speeches by women. A blog about women and public speaking called The Eloquent Woman has an index which runs to 262 entries, and a series of lists (with links to transcripts, video clips and expert commentary) organised by theme, genre and type of speaker (the selection includes speeches made by activists, athletes, entertainers and scientists, as well as politicians). Some of the historical choices were new to me (I hadn’t previously come across Nellie McClung, a Canadian suffrage campaigner who staged a debate on the question ‘Should men vote?’ in 1914); others were useful reminders about the oratorical skills displayed by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and Eleanor Roosevelt. And there is also a decent selection of speeches by contemporary women activists like Malala Yousafzai and Caroline Criado-Perez.

Interest in this subject is not confined to educational and political websites. In March this year Marie Claire magazine published its own all-female top ten, which featured Virginia Woolf, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton, Sojourner Truth, Nora Ephron, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem’s 1971 ‘Address to the Women of America’Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’ and Maya Angelou’s performance of her poem ‘On the pulse of morning’ at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many of the same selections turn up in most of the all-female lists I’ve looked at, suggesting that in effect there is a parallel ‘women’s canon’.

The fact that such a thing can be constructed must surely give the lie to the (still widespread) belief that women are less skilled in the art of oratory, or that they are simply not very interested in it (an idea which has been promoted both by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that flashy verbal performances of all kinds are an evolved male strategy for attracting mates, and by some feminists, who contend that women prefer collaborative forms of exchange, or that they are less concerned with orating and more concerned with getting shit done). Of course, it’s true that not everyone is equally good at public speaking: truly gifted performers are relatively rare, and there are many people who find any kind of public utterance a hideous ordeal. But I don’t think there’s a clear-cut male-female divide here. It does women no favours to suggest that there is something inherently male about the ability to use language to persuade, inspire or move an audience.

But in that case, you might ask, what keeps all but a tiny handful of women speakers off ‘all-time greats’ lists like the one in the Times? If they’re really as good as men, why do they need to be separated off into a parallel canon of their own?

This is, of course, a question which has also been asked in the past about art, literature, philosophy and science, and the answer usually turns out to be at least partly about sexism and double standards. In the case of public speaking, one thing that works against women is the ingrained cultural resentment of female authority which I’ve written about here, and the associated tendency to judge women’s linguistic performance negatively, using criteria which are not applied to men (those shrill voices! That grating tone! And just look at that face/hair/pantsuit/those tits!) Not only does this kind of criticism lead to an unjust downgrading of women’s actual verbal skills, anticipating and trying to pre-empt it can affect the quality of their performance, by making it more difficult for a female speaker to feel at ease when addressing an audience.

I also think there’s another kind of sexism which comes into play when people are choosing great political speeches. It’s clear when you look at the lists that greatness isn’t just about the speaker’s (or the speech-writer’s) rhetorical skill. ‘Great’ speeches are also remembered for defining a historical moment, while at the same time expressing an idea or a sentiment which transcends its time and place to convey some more universal human truth. Here, women—and more especially feminists, whose subject is their own and other women’s condition—encounter a version of the more general ‘default male’ problem: whereas men’s political concerns are seen as universal, women’s are seen as particular to women. It’s striking in this connection that over half of the speeches selected by the Centre for Women and Democracy are specifically about women’s rights—even though many of the speakers (politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Barbara Castle and Hillary Clinton) made speeches on other subjects too. It seems women speakers are most likely to attract attention when they stay in their allotted female lane, but at the same time it is held against them that they are ‘only’ talking about ‘women’s issues’. Even something like Hillary Clinton’s ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing (ironically, since the whole point of it was to assert women’s equal claim to the status of human beings) gets relegated to the category of the non-universal, and therefore the not-really-great.

In the end, though, does it really matter how many or how few women appear on lists of great orators? These lists may make good clickbait, but in the end they’re surely meaningless: real politics is not a varsity debating competition in which Churchill faces off against Lincoln, King takes on Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst competes with Sojourner Truth. These were different individuals responding to different situations (on three continents over a period of 200 years), and ranking them against each other is absurd.

It might also be argued, as I said at the beginning, that this particular genre—the set-piece formal speech—has ceased to matter much at all. Eloquence is not the valuable commodity it once was: today’s most successful politicians are not the ones who can deliver a fine oration, but the ones who know how to use contemporary media to put their messages, and their personalities, across. Just look at the present occupant of the White House, perhaps the least eloquent US president of all time. Then again, it’s only about a decade since the US first elected Barack Obama, whose eloquence the list-compilers now compare to Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s–and whose inspiring way with words was clearly a major asset in his campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, too, though not in Obama’s league as an orator, has shown with his packed public meetings and rallies that there is still something very powerful about the live, unmediated connection between a political speaker and the audience which has come together to hear them.

So, I don’t think it’s true that speeches no longer matter. They aren’t the only form of political communication that matters, but they remain part of our political culture, and indeed of our culture more generally (tweets and memes have not replaced speeches at weddings, funerals, retirement dos and the like). And if the ancient tradition of speech-making still has a place in modern life, then it does matter whether women are acknowledged in the record of that tradition. The inclusion of a single token woman on every list does not do their contribution justice. Aficianados of political oratory could learn a lot from some of the items in The Eloquent Woman‘s index–beginning with the fact that they exist.

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Postscript: I asked readers to nominate inspiring women/feminist speakers, and here are some of their suggestions.

The earliest speech anyone mentioned was Helen Keller’s call to ‘Strike against war’, from 1916. The main thing most people know about Helen Keller concerns the way she learnt to communicate after a childhood illness left her deaf and blind; but as an adult she was a committed socialist who campaigned actively for workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and world peace. This stirring speech, made in Carnegie Hall in New York City, attacked the then-ongoing campaign to prepare Americans for war, on the grounds that war would sacrifice workers’ lives to protect the interests of capitalists.

Moving on to the second half of the 20th century, several readers nominated Angela Davis as a powerful and compelling speaker (‘even when I don’t agree with her’, added one). Here’s a speech Davis made in 1969–a call to resist war abroad and fight oppression at home which has something in common with Helen Keller’s oration more than 50 years earlier. And here you can watch Davis speaking at this year’s Women’s March in Washington DC. That event was prompted by the election of Donald Trump; another memorable attack on Trump, which several readers mentioned, was made during the campaign, in a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in New Hampshire last October. (Of all the recent speeches I watched while writing this postscript, this was the one which I thought displayed the most impressive ability to connect with an audience both intellectually and emotionally.)

But it wasn’t all about women from the US. Among British politicians, readers nominated Green MP Caroline Lucas, and Labour’s Emily Thornberry, as skilful and inspiring speakers. Some also reminded me that many excellent women speakers have been trades unionists, citing Unite’s Julie Phipps as a contemporary case in point. And one reader drew my attention to the speech made at this year’s Labour’s conference by 16-year old school student Lauren Stocks. Her impassioned performance–and the ovation it received–underlines my earlier point that the art of speech-making is still alive, still relevant, and still capable of reaching people in a way other forms of communication do not.

 

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