Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keeping women off the program: history

Women today in many professions still wonder "what does it take to get on the program?" when most of the speakers at their professional conferences are men. What they may not realize: The history of women as public speakers is a short one, due to the far longer history of extraordinary efforts to keep women away from the lectern and later, the microphone. Here are just three examples from New York Times editorial columnist Gail Collins' book, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines:
  • The 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London "refused to let the women delegates speak," inspiring delegates Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to start a movement for women's rights;
  • On a book tour of England after Uncle's Tom Cabin was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe "sat silently in the the 'women's gallery' of the crowded auditoriums, while her husband read her speech from the stage;"
  • "pro-slavery hecklers claimed [Sojourner] Truth was really a man--an accusation frequently thrown at women who spoke in public," and demanded she show her breasts to women in the Indiana audience to prove her gender before she spoke. (She did it to the entire assembly instead.)

In Sojourner Truth's case, the effort to embarrass her didn't keep her from speaking--in fact, she was already before the audience, and used the situation to make her point clearer. Rosa Parks wasn't so lucky. And today, even though social norms have shifted and women are in a better position to speak in public, some of the forces that may keep them from speaking are harder to identify and confront, because they happen behind the scenes or as silent assumptions. It reminds me of an observation I heard from one of the attorneys who teaches at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She was teaching our group business negotiation skills, but at lunch, was talking about tough international negotiations between partisans with longstanding conflicts. "Which is more difficult to negotiate?" I asked. The answer came quickly: Business settings, because none of the cards are on the table. With historic rifts, the issues are well known and out in the open. Which is better for you as a speaker? What barriers do you see, if any, today? (Photo of British suffragette from the Library of Congress collection on Flickr.)

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