Friday, April 12, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Shirley Chisholm introduces the Equal Rights Amendment

"As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black."

Let other speakers mince words and dodge the difficult. Shirley Chisholm didn't so much speak in public as confront society verbally with its contradictions and inequalities. She wasn't anxious--her diatribes had a calm knowing about them--but she was adamant. Chisholm applied those speaking skills in 1969 as a member of Congress, introducing the Equal Rights Amendment and reminding her fellow members, five paragraphs in, about the two kinds of discrimination she'd faced herself. Later on, she reminds the House of Representatives that this particular piece of business had been before it for 40 years.

Chisholm had just become the first African-American woman elected to Congress the year before this speech, and it's an example of how she waded right into the task. Here, she tackles a common argument against an equal rights amendment protecting the rights of women:
One is that women are already protected under the law and do not need legislation. Existing laws are not adequate to secure equal rights for women. Sufficient proof of this is the concentration of women in lower paying, menial, unrewarding jobs and their incredible scarcity in the upper level jobs. If women are already equal, why is it such an event whenever one happens to be elected to Congress?  
It is obvious that discrimination exists. Women do not have the opportunities that men do. And women that do not conform to the system, who try to break with the accepted patterns, are stigmatized as ''odd'' and "unfeminine." The fact is that a woman who aspires to be chairman of the board, or a Member of the House, does so for exactly the same reasons as any man. Basically, these are that she thinks she can do the job and she wants to try. 
Just a few years later, Chisholm would run for president in 1972, the first major-party black candidate to do so. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Don't mince words: "The happy little homemaker and the contented 'old darkey' on the plantation were both produced by prejudice," said Chisholm, unafraid of echoing stereotypes to make her case. This is a plainspoken speech--an important quality when you're standing up for what's right or challenging the status quo. She leaves no doubt about where she stands, and where she thinks you stand in taking this position.
  • Reveal secrets as well as public positions: Chisholm spoke not only of overt discrimination, in the form of the only question asked of women job candidates ("Do you type?"), but called out "a calculated system of prejudice that lies unspoken behind that question....The unspoken assumption is that women are different. They do not have executive ability orderly minds, stability, leadership skills, and they are too emotional." Much as suffragette Nellie McClung did in 1914, Chisholm here gives voice to men's unspoken assumptions, the barriers that stood between women and equal opportunity.
  • Draw unexpected parallels: Speaking at a time when the civil rights movement was making strides, Chisholm knew from personal experience that women were discriminated against even in that movement. Knowing that civil rights had begun to gain political support, she ends her speech with a call to reject the "male supremacist myth," equating it with the white supremacist myth.
Chisholm was the subject of a PBS film, Unbought and Unbossed, which takes its title from Chisholm's autobiography, now updated as Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition. You can read the text of this famous speech, and watch this series of clips of Chisholm speaking around the announcement of her candidacy for the presidency in 1972. You'll get a great sense of her pacing and cadence, and her sharp enunciation:


As an extra treat for our speechwriting readers, here's speechwriter Jill Franklin on writing for Chisholm:

 

A hat tip to reader Matt Shipman for the pointer to this text. Thanks!

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