Friday, September 27, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Bella Abzug's American Express ad parody

Not quite 40 years ago, a woman in the U.S. couldn't get a credit card in her own name, or without her husband's permission--even if she was a member of Congress. Bella Abzug, then representing New York City, discovered this as many women did: She applied for an American Express card, and found she couldn't get one unless it read "Mrs. Martin Abzug" and her husband signed for it.

Abzug went on to propose and pass the 1974 legislation giving women the right to credit in their own names, a right that is new enough for many of us to remember its passage. In 1983, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University worked with Abzug to make this short video explaining what she had done. She starts with "Do you know me?", which was the American Express tagline at the time, and the video gently mocks the credit card's popular celebrity commercials. After all was said and done, Abzug said "I didn't know whether I should really get an American Express card, but I decided I would so that I could tell this story."

Abzug, who successfully used the slogan "This woman's place is in the house--the House of Representatives" in her 1970 campaign, was famous for her signature wide-brimmed hats, which she started wearing in the 1940s at the start of her law practice. (Her thinking was that they would keep her from being mistaken for a secretary.) Self-described as "born yelling," she was an early leader of the women's movement who often remarked on efforts to limit women from speaking or speaking up, saying "women have been trained to talk softly and carry a lipstick." One tactic that Abzug modeled well was insisting that she be taken seriously, saying, “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made clear from the outset—I am a very serious woman.”

There's a serious lack of available video and text of Abzug's speeches and she was so colorful that much of what the public saw came in her comments in news interviews, so this short mock commercial offers a rare look today at her delivery, tone and content, brief as it is. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Be loud and proud: Abzug paired serious legislation with forceful delivery at a time when this was nearly unheard of for women in public life. She projected with volume and with confidence, and did not apologize for being a woman, nor for her efforts to right what she considered wrongs. Everything about her speaking style underscores her approach to social change.
  • Don't alter yourself to suit the audience: The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Abzug held forth in a Bronx accent, a wide-brimmed hat and an at-times casual way of speaking that any citizen could follow, despite her advanced degrees. It's tough to recall her being inauthentic in any way as a speaker.
  • Take charge of your story: Given that there's so little surviving video or audio of Abzug speaking, I'm grateful that she agreed to do this video--and wish she'd also done similar projects for her legislative action on sunshine laws and government transparency, on rights for gays and lesbians, and more. Make sure you're telling your authentic stories and capturing those speeches on video or audio, in published texts, and online.
I've always been grateful to have had Abzug's voice and confidence ringing in my ears early in my life. You can read more about this famous speaker in the biography Bella Abzug. What do you think of this famous speech?

I've got two smart workshops for communicators this fall: Be an Expert on Working with Experts on October 8, or The Keys to Confident Public Speaking on October 17. Join us and register today!

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