Friday, February 18, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights

I call Eleanor Roosevelt the "First Lady of firsts," particularly when it comes to public communication. She was the first First Lady to have a syndicated column and a radio commentary program, the first to speak before a major convention, and the first to hold press conferences--to which she invited only female reporters, because they were otherwise banned from the White House press corps. How's that for being the change you want to see in the world?

Her public speaking was forced by her husband's presidency and his disability--she often made appearances when he could not--and after FDR's death, she was tapped by President Truman to serve as a delegate to the brand new United Nations and to marshall the Declaration of Human Rights.  The late 1940s and 50s became her most prolific period of public speaking as a result.

Roosevelt's work on the human rights declaration was mostly behind the scenes, negotiating, lobbying and listening until she could bring UN delegates to a consensus.  But in this speech to a Columbia University sorority, she explains the process that resulted in the human rights declaration, disclosing discussions and nuances in an early version of what we'd call "transparency" today.  Here, she describes the impact that women on one of the committees had on its final language, which originally mimicked the U.S. declaration of independence to say "All men...":
Right away they saw something in our document that we brought to them which we had not given much thought to. As we presented the document, it was perhaps a little too Anglo-Saxon, a little too much like the American Declaration. It said "all men" in the beginning of a great many paragraphs; the final Article reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

After I got home I received a letter from a gentleman who said, "How could you as the United States Delegate vote for Article I of the Universal Declaration when it is not like our Declaration?"

Now I will tell you how I could. The women on Committee III--and remember there were 58 representatives of governments in Committee III, not 18-58--and the women said " 'All men,' oh, no. In this document we are not going to say 'all men' because in some of our countries we are just struggling to recognition and equality. Some of us have come up to the top but others have very little equality and recognition and freedom. If we say 'all men,' when we get home it will be 'all men.'" So you will find in this Declaration that it starts with "all human beings" in Article I, and in all the other Articles is says "everyone," "no one." In the body of the Article it occasionally says "his," because to say "his or hers" each time was a little awkward, but it is very clearly understood that this applies to all human beings.
Women in places where human rights are in question have reason to thank her every day for that change.

There's no one speech to point to about the declaration--rather, far too many--but here's what I observe about Roosevelt's speeches and speaking that you might be able to use:
  • She never fails to use examples featuring real people:  A master of this form, Eleanor Roosevelt genuinely saw her mission as one of shedding light on the experiences of "ordinary" people, and used them to illustrate her points, whether they were the women delegates helping to frame the declaration of human rights, or a rural couple whose lives were changed by the presence of a public library where one had not existed before. Roosevelt spent countless hours touring with and talking to citizens, and incorporated their stories into her speeches--her way of representing them, even though she never held an elected office.
  • She was a master of the aphorism:  And we quote hers every day, from  Do what you feel in your heart to be right -- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't, to A woman is like a tea bag -- only in hot water do you realize how strong she is. Those short, punchy, funny lines give the listener something they can recognize and relate to--and remember later to repeat to others, just what a speaker wants to prompt.
  • She was shy, feared public speaking--and did it anyway:  In the video examples below, you won't see a sign of nerves (and by the time these were recorded, she'd had ample practice). Her call to service was stronger than her public-speaking fear.
Here's the short video of her statement after the United Nations ratified the declaration:

Here's video from a television "speech" she gave later, to celebrate Human Rights Day--I think it will give you a good sense of her speaking style in a less cavernous setting:

Photo courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.