Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Guardian: What makes a great speech? Hard to know, with so few by women

Writing in The Guardian, columnist Mary Beard looks at the history of public speaking and what makes a great speech -- and concludes it can't be defined well because of the absence of women speakers in much of our history:

Yet there is something problematic about the very notion of "great oratory". For a start, it is an almost entirely male category. I doubt that there have been many, if any, "great" female orators, at least as "great oratory" has traditionally been defined. Margaret Thatcher may have delivered some memorable soundbites to the party faithful ("The lady's not for turning"), but she did not give great persuasive speeches. In fact, when a few years ago the Guardian published its own collection of great oratory of the 20th century, it obviously had a problem with the female examples.
Beard makes it clear that the problem doesn't lie with women. On the contrary, she notes:
I'm not meaning by this that women have in some way "failed" to master the art of public speaking. Not at all. The point is that "great oratory" is a category that has been consistently defined to exclude them – and the more you search for the roots of our own oratorical traditions in the classical past, the more obvious that exclusion becomes. In ancient Greece and Rome the ability to speak in public and to persuade your fellow (male) citizens was almost as much a defining attribute of the male of the species as a penis was. Men spoke, women kept quiet – that's what made them women. "Great oratory" even now has not shaken off its male, "willy-waving" origins. We are not even sure, I suspect, what a great woman's speech would sound like. Thatcher tried to get round the problem by lowering her voice an octave, but she ended up sounding more like a woman pretending to be a man.

The article shares a good summary of the history of classic oratory, and if you're not familiar with the long history of public speaking and great oratory, it's well worth a read. I'm delighted to see Beard correcting the record, as her points about the exclusion of women from public speech throughout so much of our history are rarely made.
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