Friday, September 23, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Nellie McClung's "Should Men Vote?" speech

I asked readers for nominees for Famous Speech Friday posts, and Canada-based speaking coach Heather Stubbs wrote, "I don't know if you'd find any speeches by her, but Nellie McClung was an outspoken Canadian feminist, politician and social activist. 1873-1951. She was instrumental in getting women in Canada accepted as 'persons' in 1927, clearing the way for women to enter politics."

As it turned out, while I don't have the full text, the speech was easy enough to identify. McClung, a noted novelist and temperance campaigner, became involved in the Political Equality League in the effort to get women in Canada the right to vote. According to the CBC, "These women were repeatedly told that 'nice women' didn't want the vote. In 1914, the Conservative premier of Manitoba, Sir Rodmond Roblin, said women's suffrage 'would be a retrograde movement...it will break up the home'." 

McClung and other suffragettes in the League convened a mock parliament that same year. Women sat on the stage, playing members of parliament, and a delegation of men presented a petition asking for men to get the right to vote. McClung, acting as the premier of the parliament, gave a stem-winder of a speech, using the same words, phrases and accusations that were made about women voters to debate whether men should have that right. She even began her remarks by complimenting the men on their appearance, much as a man might do to a delegation of women. This passage from "Should Men Vote?" gives you an idea of the speech's tongue-in-cheek approach: 
Oh, no, man is made for something higher and better than voting...The trouble is that if men start to vote, they will vote too much. Politics unsettle men and unsettled men means unsettled bills, broken furniture, broken vows, and divorce. Men's place is on the farm....if men were to get the vote, who knows what would happen? It's hard enough to keep them home now!
McClung, already a frequent speaker due to her temperance work, was described by many as a dynamic speaker with a ready wit, and this speech brought those qualities to the fore. The audience howled with laughter, and the speech was an overnight sensation. Suddenly, the campaign to get votes for women was popular, even fashionable--and Manitoba, along with some other provinces, granted women the right to vote in provincial elections in 1916. McClung later served in the legislative assembly in Alberta. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Use humor to sound confident: It takes confidence to use humor, which can so often backfire--and using humor with skill in a speech makes the speaker look extra-confident. In this case, McClung's approach allowed her to avoid looking defensive, anxious and critical, as she might have done if she'd chosen a less humorous approach.
  • Turn your opponent's words back against him: In this speech, her goal was to show that objections to votes for women made little sense. Using her opponent's oft-repreated dire predictions and insinuations against him was a stroke of genius. When you have the chance to do this, the tactic can make your case for you. 
  • Have fun with your speaking: By all accounts, McClung delivered these remarks in an over-the-top style, emphasizing the warnings about "nice" men not voting and making the dire predictions sound extra ominous--a cue for the audience to have fun with it, too.  Leavening the serious issue with entertainment value didn't hurt the cause a bit.
Here's a recreation of the mock parliament in a "heritage minute" from Histori.ca:


This CBC interview with Beatrice Brigden, who saw the mock parliament when she was a young girl, notes that the session was "uproariously funny." You'll see footage from suffrage protests of the period to get some of the flavor of this famous speech:


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