Friday, March 4, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Betty Friedan's call for a women's strike


It was an ending speech, her March 20, 1970 farewell speech at the conclusion of her term as the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She was nearly 50. But Betty Friedan used what might have been a pro forma speech not to thank everyone and reflect backwards, but to make a call for action that astonished its hearers: She called for women to go on strike.

Friedan, the author of the 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, had already broken ground by saying "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: "I want something more than my husband and my children and my home." But with this speech, she astonished the early leaders of the women's movement of her era. Sadly, I haven't been able to find a full text of the speech. But here's a compelling excerpt that described her vision of what would happen on the strike day
The women who are doing menial chores in the offices as secretaries put the covers on their typewriters and close their notebooks and the telephone operators unplug their switchboards, the waitresses stop waiting, cleaning women stop cleaning and everyone who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more stop … And when it begins to get dark, instead of cooking dinner or making love, we will assemble and we will carry candles alight in every city to converge the visible power of women at city hall … Women will occupy for the night the political decision-making arena and sacrifice a night of love to make the political meaning clear.
Friedan wrote at length about the origins of the Women's Strike in her book It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement, in which she shared how this speech affected her, and shared the last line. She wrote:
I was told later I that talked for nearly two hours--"like Castro or some Communist commissar," Kay Clarenbach teased me. But the women of NOW listened. It was late in the afternoon, and intense. I was so tired when I finished that I held on to the lectern. I ended, knowing it was so--"I have led you into history. I leave you now--to make new history."  They gave me a standing ovation, the members of NOW, and I was moved.
In the speech, she called on women to muster on the 50th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, August 26, 1970, at the end of a workday  -- an effort to make sure more of them would participate -- and envisioned this as a march and strike that would throw into high relief women's contributions to society. The strike had concrete goals for equality, from equal pay for equal work to abundant and accessible child care.

Ms. magazine recalled: "That was a tall order for a three-and-a-half-year-old organization like the National Organization for Women, with 3,033 members, 35 chapters and an annual budget of $38,000, to carry out." That's just one reason why no one thought it would work: Not her sisters in the women's movement, not the media (who made relentless fun of the march), not even her children. In this remembrance, her son recalls being cajoled by friends to go to the march, even though he, too, thought it would be a failure:
He agreed out of pity. “I’d seen the Charlie Chaplin movie where he marches down the street waving a flag with no one marching after him. I thought at least there’d be four of us,” he says. But once Jonathan got to Fifth Avenue, he couldn’t get anywhere near his mother. The street was teeming with people. When the march ended at Bryant Park, Jonathan climbed up on a wall so he could glimpse Friedan standing on a podium. She spoke to an audience in the tens of thousands. “This was the moment I realized who she was,” he says.
In the end, the speech she gave as a farewell to NOW wound up bringing some 50,000 women into the streets of New York City alone, with marches, rallies and other events in 90 cities and 42 states. It was the first major event to bring the late 20th century women's movement onto the front pages (the New York Times, covering her initial speech on the strike, called her a "militant leader"), and succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. In the end, her 2006 obituary in the Times said she "permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world."

So what can we learn from the speech that ignited this charge?
  • Active verbs make a call to action: Read the verbs in the excerpt above: Put, close, unplug, stop, assemble, carry, converge, occupy, sacrifice, make.  There is no waffling, no hesitation in an active verb. That means the audience was clear on what was wanted of it. Is your audience as clear on what you want them to do when they leave the hall? Passive verbs do not a call to action make.
  • She used her (seemingly) last leadership platform to create something new:  This could have been a true farewell speech. Instead, Friedan used it to push the group beyond what seemed possible and to propose a preposterous idea--but one she thought could happen. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, might be the lesson here. Why pull your punches? Why dial in a perfunctory farewell speech, when you can do this? Instead, she said, "I have led you into history. Now I leave you to make new history."
  • She flew in the face of conventional wisdom. I have to believe Friedan knew that her listeners, committed as they were to the cause, would doubt that this could happen. And that thought was borne out by everyone from the news media to her family. The police reserved only one traffic lane on Fifth Avenue for the march, a sure sign their estimates said there'd be low turnout. But Friedan reinforced her message in many subsequent speeches and interviews. A persistent message and strong vision paid off, as did her instincts and research about the women she hoped would march.
  • She drew a picture of what the strike would look like in terms of the lives of those whom she hoped would march.  Instead of lecturing or cajoling, she envisioned in words the picture of what would happen on the day of the strike. Evoking secretaries covering their typewriters and waitresses and cleaning women stopping their tasks put the march in terms to which women could relate and respond. No platitudes, just a platform. By the time of the march, that simple language was translated into signs like "Don't iron while the strike is hot."
After this march, Friedan went on to nearly another 40 years leading women--and she was almost 50 when she gave this sparking speech. What do you think of it?

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