Tuesday, May 26, 2009

top women speakers? Aimee Mullins


Aimee Mullins is on our burgeoning list of today's top women speakers because reader Beth Schachter asked her friends for suggestions. Her fellow Toastmaster Merry Beekman came forward with Mullins, who has spoken twice at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, which generously makes videos available for its talks.

This talk, "Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs," puts a dozen unusual prosthetic legs on stage with Mullins, whose own legs were amputated below the knee in infancy, as she was born without fibular bones. From her bio:
She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run -- competing at the national and international level as a champion sprinter, and setting world records at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. At Georgetown, where she double-majored in history and diplomacy, she became the first double amputee to compete in NCAA Division 1 track and field.
She has gone on to model and act, but has become a visible proponent of advances in prosthetics.

In this talk, Mullins uses some of the techniques already noted from our top women speakers of today. She moves around the stage, using the space and her props--the prosthetics--to underscore her points and illustrate the slides further. Notice how she keeps her arms where they can be instantly useful for gesturing, bent at the elbow; it's also a relaxed look that keeps her hands free, which helps her delivery. She focuses on telling personal stories, another key to speaking without notes.

What's fascinating, too, about this talk is its discussion of beauty and disability. Mullins tackles it, and so do the commenters on this TED page featuring her speech. Here's a sample:
Such a brilliant athlete and spokeswoman for the differently abled gets it, but then why did she pose as a half-naked cat? It's ridiculous. She doesn't need photos like that to make her beautiful, and she should not seek acceptance from the skin-deep fashion industry to prove her beauty. All it said to me was that yes, even women without legs can be heavily objectified. The same industry she is so happy to be accepted in is the one that helped make her feel different in the first place! Everyone commenting on this speech admires Ms. Mullins for her true beauty, and I am afraid the mixed message of the photo shoot is trying to take credit for it. I%u2019d like to see a picture of her, fully clothed, without any prosthetics on- that would be a bold, beautiful move.

Is she helping push the diversity of what we consider beautiful, or becoming objectified? Whatever your view, she's a compelling speaker.

Related posts:

What should I do with my hands?

Another eloquent woman on disability

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

top women speakers? Hillary Clinton

Responding to my call for the top women speakers of today, reader Beth Schacter responded, "I suspect you already have Hillary [Clinton] on your list but I would like to reinforce that vote. She spoke at the Barnard graduation and my neighbor, a Barnard faculty member, was absolutely breathless in her enthusiasm for Hilliary's inspirational speech. My neighbor implied that Secretary Clinton's speech brought the entire house to both cheers and tears."

In fact, Secretary Clinton has long ranked as one of just a handful of women speakers--and even fewer women speakers of today--on the list of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century. That's due to her speech as First Lady at the United Nations' fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Titled "Women's Rights are Human Rights," which you can hear, see and read by following the link. It included this reminder, which includes women's right to speech:
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely -- and the right to be heard.
At the time of her U.N. speech, Clinton had revitalized the White House Council on Women, on which I was honored to serve. Her focus on putting women's issues front and center was widely lauded during her time as First Lady, but this speech--with all the rhetorical flourishes and formalities that you'd expect in a plenary speech before a delegation convened by the U.N.--was perhaps the most visible of those efforts. As I've noted before, when women speakers take the time to address women's issues, there's a special resonance and meaning underscoring their words, and this speech certainly offers a good example of that, causing a major stir at the time of its delivery.

Fast forward to this year and Barnard's 2009 commencement. You can go here to see video and read the text of Secretary Clinton's message to the graduates. This speech, to my mind, shows a bit of what Clinton has learned over the past two decades: She confesses she was startled by the world's reaction to her statement in 1995 that women's rights are human rights, because she took that for granted. In her Barnard speech, she takes the time to unpack the idea that the graduates might've taken for granted, that there's little they can do to change the world, giving them simple steps they can take using "social networking tools that you use every day to tell people you've gone to get a latte or you're going to be running late."

She concludes this speech tying herself, her mother, and her daughter to the graduates as if in one long chain of women makign a difference, a rousing conclusion:
As I was listening to Sarah Besnoff's address and how she was talking about her mother, I had to smile because I often say that in my next life I'm going to come back as my daughter. And I felt a remarkable kinship with Sarah's mother and with other mothers of my generation and those who came before, like my own mother, who was born before women could vote, that no matter how satisfying our lives have been, how we have put together pieces that add up to a whole that is so important to us and has given meaning to this journey we are on, we look at young women and we think to ourselves: This is a future that women in the history of the world have never been able to imagine, that you leave here empowered in a way that women and girls have never been before. It's exciting, but it's daunting. But I know you're up to it.
Clinton also should serve as a great example to women speakers, someone whose skills have developed with years of practice and training--something you should consider.

Related posts on Hillary Clinton

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz. (Photos of Clinton from Barnard College and television screen grab)