Monday, January 7, 2013

Time capsule: "Women Eager Students of After-Dinner Speaking"

Even today, women speakers sometimes report getting a sense that men (and some women) in their audiences are thinking "who does she think she is?" That's historically been more the rule than the exception for women speakers, as an early 20th century report in the New York Times demonstrates.

The August 14, 1910 article Banquet Oratory Now College Course (available in PDF for New York Times subscribers), with the subheadings "Visitor to Columbia University Finds Women Eager Students of After-Dinner Speaking" and "SUSPECT SUFFRAGETTE PLOT," is not a model of journalistic reporting, as the lede paragraph demonstrates:
If anyone doubts that the insurrection of women in this country means business, let him invade the class in "platform speaking," which is a part of the up-to-date menu of education provided by the Summer School of Columbia University....a man was found the other day who said he had just been there.
This fine source of information describes at length the more attractive female students, but notes that most of the women who made up two-thirds of the class were "severely businesslike." When instructed to rest her hand on the back of a chair, one of the students attempting to speak was described as having "gripped the chair with a nervous strength which suggested that she expected to have to use it at any moment as a lethal weapon." This in turn led the observer to suspect the class was a thinly veiled training ground for suffragettes. No other reason could be determined for women learning to speak in public, unless it was to go out to rally for voting rights.

Cast as an unsolved mystery--"the feminine complexion of the class remained to be explained"--the article alludes to women's desire to speak in public as hardly credible, which was true for the day. The remainder of the article spends a lot of time harping about the fact that a class in platform speaking did not, in fact, include a platform, nor did the after-dinner speaking instruction include a dinner. If that all exaggeration sounds ridiculous, remember the root of that word is "ridicule," which the article certainly does.

For perspective, in 2013 the blog will begin sharing "time capsules" about women and public speaking from historic documents and sources.If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you. 

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