Friday, April 26, 2013

7 famous speeches by women about health from The Eloquent Woman Index

A speech about sickness and health may loom like a minefield for some women speakers, planted with all the challenges they've been taught to avoid in public speaking. Vulnerability, emotion, the female body--all of these attributes might be on display in a speech about health, even if the speaker doesn't plan for them to be the focus of her content.


And yet, a glance through the 100-plus speeches collected in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches shows just how powerful these women can sound when they talk about battling disease, or standing up for reproductive health, or urging political and scientific action. They succeed by stepping right into that minefield of vulnerability and emotion, realizing their bravery and determination will carry them through. Let's take a look at a few of these speakers from our index and see what they accomplished:

They spoke about the unspeakable: During the 1992 presidential election, Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Glaser made noisy convention halls fall into silence by talking passionately about HIV/AIDS in a time when the disease was still under the radar for most Americans. Although not as taboo a topic as HIV, straight talk about cancer was seldom heard in 1975 when Betty Ford broke with all kinds of conventions in describing her mastectomy. And after decades of hiding her condition, Elyn Saks lifted some of the stigma of mental illness when she went public with her schizophrenia diagnosis.

They seized the bully pulpit: Glaser, Fisher and Ford are all good examples here, but a few more of my favorites in this category include Margaret Sanger and U.S. Congresswomen Jackie Speier and Gwen Moore. In her 1925 speech "The Children's Era," Sanger skillfully focused on the health and welfare of unwanted children as a way of garnering more support for birth control and the need for women to control their own reproductive health. In 2011, Speier threw away her prepared remarks during a floor debate about Planned Parenthood to give a wrenching description of her own abortion, and Moore spoke about going into labor and being unable to even call for an ambulance. Their impromptu speeches provided short but blistering examples of why women in similar circumstances need affordable healthcare.

They turned powerful stories into powerful actions: Saks' speaking tour about her schizophrenia book prompted her to launch new research projects about the disease, which soon led to a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Ford's speech sent thousands of women to get their first mammograms. Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference two years after her speech--although she and the other women at the conference had to remove their names from the program.

(Photo of Betty Ford touring a breast cancer center courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

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