Friday, April 1, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Reps. Jackie Speier and Gwen Moore

In a heated debate and a highly formalized setting, when you have no time to prepare anything else, would you throw away your remarks? That's what Rep. Jackie Speier of California's 12th district did last month on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

But that's not why her speech became famous. She used her brief allotted time to speak about her own abortion, during a heated debate over an amendment to take funding away from Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, for its women's health and sex education services. (Interestingly, abortion services were not the subject of the amendment, although the debate included discussion of unwanted pregnancies.)

The House was in hour three of its debate on the amendment, attached to one of the continuing resolutions extending the U.S. federal government budget. Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey's 4th district had just spoken in support of the amendment. Speier then requested time to speak and was given five minutes to do so. Here's how she began:
I had planned to speak about something else, but the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots.  I'm one of those women he spoke about just now. I had a procedure at 17 weeks, pregnant with a child that had moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure that you just talked about was the procedure that I endured. I lost a baby. But for you to stand on this floor, and suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.
Speier then pointed out that abortion and other services offered by the nonprofit were legal under current U.S. law, and in a series of anaphora statements, repeated "Planned Parenthood has a right to..." as she enumerated its services. She compared attacks on the nonprofit with a hypothetical attack that might be mounted on Halliburton, a major defense contractor--but have not been. She concluded: "I would suggest to you that it would serve us all very well if we moved on with this process and started focusing on creating jobs for the Americans who desperately want them. I yield back." Her statement took all of 3 minutes and 14 seconds.

She was followed by Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin's fourth district, also speaking against the amendment. Moore described being a teenage mother, having her first baby:
I'm really touched by the passion of the opposite, you know, to want to save black babies. I know a lot about having black babies, I've had three of them. And I had my first one when I was 18 years old, at the ripe old age of 18. [Interruptions] I thank you for that courtesy, Madam Chair. I had my first baby at the ripe old age of 18, an unplanned pregnancy. And let me tell you, I went into labor unfortunately on New Year's eve, and I had not even one dime--phone calls cost a dime at that time. I didn't have a phone in my phone in my home and didn't ahve a dime to go to the phone booth to call an ambulance which is a waste of money, using Medicaid dollars. But I didn't have a car and didn't have cab fare....I just want to tell you a little bit about what it's like not to have planned parenthood. You have to add water to the formula. You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so that they won't cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches.
Here's Moore on video with her full remarks, just over 5 minutes including the interruption:

Moore later revealed that having that first baby at 18 kept her from attending Radcliffe, part of Harvard University.

Both these speeches went viral on the web and were broadcast on numerous news programs, gaining both women a wider audience than they might otherwise have expected. What worked with these speeches?
  • They spoke for themselves: In the face of debate arguments that made sweeping generalizations about pregnant women and their choices, each women told her own story and refuted the arguments with specific details based on real experience. 
  • Conformity to the rules: When you're testifying before a legislature or actually working in one, the rules determine all. You win no points--and may lose your chance for impact--by going overtime or behaving inappropriately. Both these representatives contained their remarks appropriately, and Moore handled the chatter on the floor smoothly, letting the presiding officer handle it and thanking her before resuming her remarks.
  • The formal language of debate: The personal nature of these remarks is in high relief against the formal language of the Congress. Think: "the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots." Formal titles, phrasing and requisite language about time and ceding time all help to subtly remind the listener that important business is being conducted and that rules do apply to the speeches.
  • The personal stories no one else can tell: What so many found compelling about the remarks of both women were their personal stories--and I always encourage women looking to find their own voices to tell the personal stories that are the most difficult to tell, because they're the most compelling and riveting. No one else can tell your stories as effectively as you can--and best of all, you'll rarely need notes for them.
  • The rhythms of rhetoric: Formal rhetorical devices are not unusual in the halls of Congress, and both women used anaphora, a figure of speech that repeats words or phrases to effect. The rhetoric adds another type of structure to the remarks, so that even the unplanned Speier speech had the ring of a serious speech.

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