Friday, August 9, 2013

Nine famous speeches from women legislators in The Eloquent Woman Index

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes from here. You're thinking of droning discourses on the merits of House Bill 147, punctuated with quaint lines like, "I yield the remainder of my time to the gentlewoman from the great state of..." It's true that legislators aren't often called upon to make the soaring speeches that executives like presidents and prime ministers are known for. But listen closely to these selections from The Eloquent Woman Index, and you'll learn a thing or two from these careful speakers. They know a lot about crafting a talk that gets to the art of compromise and the wooing of constituencies. And that's not to say that they don't speak eloquently when the occasion arises.

1. "The unspoken assumption is that women are different." U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American elected to Congress in 1968, and she wasted no time in putting her speaking skills to work on the House floor. Her 1969 speech introducing the Equal Rights Amendment is a terrific example of how powerful plain speaking can be. She doesn't mince words to describe what's at stake, and she uses her own compelling story as a way for listeners to immediately grasp the need for the amendment.

2. "We can shape a better future." Speaking of firsts, U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro's 1984 vice presidential nomination speech and her campaign highlighted some of the barriers that women still face in political circles. Despite being a standing member of Congress when she campaigned, her opponent George H.W. Bush referred to her as "Mrs. Ferraro" instead of "Congresswoman" or "Representative." Her speaking style was also criticized as being too masculine, but none of that mattered in an acceptance speech guided by the momentous occasion.

3.  "Everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart." Speeches by pioneering women legislators can be notable for bringing new perspectives to traditionally male-dominated institutions. When Dame Enid Lyon gave her "Strike a Human Heart" speech as the first woman elected to Parliament in Australia, listeners praised her beautiful voice and diction. But she also spoke about her own experiences in the 1943 speech as a mother of 12 living through a world war, and insisted that these experiences were meaningful in the political sphere.

4. "Someday, by God, I want to throw a wedding for that kid." Washington State Representative Maureen Walsh's surprising 2012 speech before the state legislature, supporting same-sex marriage, also mixes the personal and the political to great effect. She would probably agree with Dame Enid that the work of lawmakers, eventually and inevitably, influences the lives of real people and not abstract "voters."

5.  "The American Dream need not forever be deferred." If you want eloquence, there's no better place to find it than in Barbara Jordan's keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. U.S Representative Jordan was the first woman and first African-American to deliver the convention keynote, and she rose to the historic occasion. Listen for her amazing cadences, classical rhetorical devices and strong declarations throughout the speech.

6. "Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America." What, no applause? When Margaret Chase Smith spoke out against Joseph McCarthy in 1950, she spoke as the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. At a time when many Americans feared McCarthy's investigations against alleged Communists, her "Declaration of Conscience" speech in the Senate chamber was a brave act. The response? McCarthy himself left the chamber right after Smith spoke, and most of the senators stayed notably silent.

7. "Man is made for something higher and better than voting." This is a fun one: Canadian activist Nellie McClung's "Should Men Vote?" speech, delivered at a 1914 mock parliament convened by the Political Equality League. It's a rollicking satire, where McClung uses confidence and humor to demolish all the reasons for denying suffrage to women. McClung later served in the legislative assembly in Alberta.

8. "I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice." Farewells from legislators are often their most memorable speeches, but the 2012 resignation speech of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was even more heartfelt than most. The congresswoman, who had been shot in the head a year earlier, could only speak in short, slow sentences. So she used both a video message and a surrogate reading a letter for her from the House floor to craft a careful goodbye. The multipart speech is a powerful reminder that limitations shouldn't silence anyone.

9. "This is my life." Texas State Senator Wendy Davis held the floor for more than 11 hours in a dramatic effort to filibuster restrictive anti-abortion legislation. She used stories about her own life and struggles with financial security and reproductive health, and read from constituents' emails and letters about how the pending bill would impact their lives. So effective was she at serving as a voice of the people that record-breaking crowds took up the effort when she was stopped, chanting "Let her speak! Let her speak!" long enough to run out the clock on the session, effectively killing the bill that day.

Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post.

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