Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A reader asks: "How do I find non-trivial quotes by women on my topic?"

Do you ever get discouraged when you're seeking quotes for a presentation or speech, and all the available gems are from men? Or, more precisely, you're seeking quotes from women that suit your topic, but they just seem to be unavailable?

It's a frequent problem for women speakers. Why? Women have historically had fewer chances to speak in public, and when they have spoken, their speeches were not recorded or transcribed, many times. As one who tries to report on women and public speaking, believe me: Searching for quotes by women is not an easy task.

Perhaps that why a series of tweets caught my eye recently. I keep a search open on Twitter for The Eloquent Woman, and happened to see a mysterious tweet from Cate Huston, a software engineer at Google, and knew I needed to know more:
I went back to see Linda Carson's original tweet, shown above. @ghc is short for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, being held just then in Baltimore. Since I happened to be online, I butted in:

Carson shared that she had been "scrolling through my own file, just got to the Davids and lost heart." Then, when I asked whether they had any requests for quotes or quote resources, Carson replied, "Non-trivial quotations on design, creative process, failure, collaboration, please!"

This turns out to be a challenge on several levels. Because women have been forbidden to speak for so much of our history, there are fewer speeches from which to quote, and in my experience, women's speeches are less likely to be saved, transcribed, videotaped or otherwise recorded. In many professions--such as computing and technology--women are scarce as speakers.

I'm going to take this challenge in two directions, offering some women-specific quotation sources as well as some sources focused on the non-trivial topics requested: design, creative process, failure and collaboration. And let me put out this call: I'd love readers to use the comments to chime in, whether you have just one quote from a woman on these topics, or a well-loved source of women's quotations.

For quotes from women speakers:
For non-trivial quotes about creativity, design, failure and collaboration:
  • Start with the above sources: One of my favorite failure quotes from the Eloquent Woman Index comes from former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz: "I have a saying that I have used at my companies. Fail. Fast. Forward. Take risks. Fail. You're not going to get hurt by that. Try and figure it out as quickly as possible that it is not the right thing. That's the fast part. And move forward. Fail. Fast. Forward." Wherever possible, speeches in the Index include a link to a transcript, so you can choose the quotes that work best for you.
  • Look for creative thinkers outside your field: You may work in programming or architecture, so look outside your box at dancers, artists, writers--all of whom write about creativity. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life is a favorite with visual artists, for example--she writes of starting with an empty room, just as visual artists might begin with a blank canvas. Creativity's what you have in common, so look for creative women in all fields to fuel your quote folders. Likewise, consider looking at fashion designers for interesting quotes you can apply to programming design. Sounds frivolous, but may yield just what you're looking for. My most popular post on designing a slide presentation is built on a Coco Chanel quote.
  • Look for the new breed of creative thinkers who collect quotes:  I could send you to repositories like, where you can find and search through Bartlett's Quotations, among other references, but they're over-populated with quotes from men. Instead try the new breed of quote-mongers. Maria Popova, the maestra behind Brain Pickings blog--a great source on creativity, among other topic--now has a quote machine called Literary Jukebox, a blog that daily quotes a favorite book and pairs it with a musical recording. Popova also blogs at Exp.lore, with threads on creativity and innovation, science and technology, and art and design, each one loaded with quotes, many from women. Also in this vein, check out Letters of Note, which collects and publishes unusual correspondence on its blog. The Improvised Life is fond of sharing quotes, creative mashups and beautiful inspirations that are not at all trivial.
  • Don't see enough quotes from women in other collections? Let the compilers know what you want to see. Pepper them with emails and tweets, just like you did here. Ask. If you belong to a professional society with a women's committee, or one made up of women, make that a project so that your profession's women are represented with their best quotes. (Historians in your field will be great partners in this project.) And if you have a great collection, consider putting it online to share with the rest of us--I'd love a heads-up about your best online collections of quotes by women.