Sunday, June 1, 2008

is it time for a gender speech from clinton?

Anna Holmes, managing editor of the blog Jezebel, makes the case for Hillary Clinton to address gender discrimination in an op-ed article today in the New York Times. Holmes offers this prescription for how such a speech could come about:
The question is when, and how, she could do it. The when: after she bows out of the presidential race, so that it couldn’t be painted as a last-ditch effort to win. The where: a public university, or perhaps a private women’s college like her alma mater, would be fitting. The how: she could speak from a place of pride and passion, pride for how far she and other women have come; passion for how far we have to go, including the sad fact that sexism is so pervasive as to be almost invisible and so accepted that to mention it is to risk being accused of hypersensitivity. She could talk openly about the tug of war between the personal and the political, between the armor women wear in public and what they expose in private. Lastly, she could recognize the occasion for what it is: an opportunity to heal the rifts between women in the Democratic Party and to bring new female voters into the fold.
What's striking to me is that Holmes's strategy encapsulates the factors any woman might consider when contemplating a forthright speech on a difficult topic when her gender is a factor with the audience (as so often it is). She advises timing the speech to avoid an easy-to-anticipate criticism from the audience--one that supporters and opponents might make -- but urges her to mention that criticism in the speech, to identify it for what it is. Rather than just struggle with the "tug of war" about women's personal and public identities, she urges putting the tension where it belongs: in the speech, where it can be shared with the audience rather than strangling the speaker. Finally, she recommends leadership: positive statements of pride, passion and perspective that appeal to the audience's nobler instincts in the face of sexist attitudes.

This approach is a wonderful strategy to borrow, and one I feel too few speakers try as they aim for polished, poised and safe presentations. I'm not suggesting you rant--the power in the speech Holmes suggests will derive from the speaker's restraint, and also in turning a tough spotlight on herself. As Holmes writes: "She also needs to be honest in a way that she hasn’t been lately" about the privileges she has enjoyed and the wider needs of women without those opportunities. That would add credibility to the attributes of such a speech.

Holmes cites two speeches Clinton gave years ago on women's issues, and because the Times didn't see fit to offer links to them, I will: her 1995 address at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, and her 1969 commencement address upon her graduation from Wellesley College. Read them, and leave your comments below: What would you like to see Clinton say about women and their struggles in speaking pbulicly?