You'll notice a big gap--nearly 300 years--between the earliest speech in the Index by Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 and Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech in 1851, and that's no mistake: For many of those years, women in many cultures were forbidden to speak in public. "History has many themes," wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson. "One of them is that women should be quiet."
It was still rare for women to speak publicly in the 1800s and the following decades, but more publicly acceptable in Western cultures for them to speak about issues like temperance, slavery and religion. That's what makes some of the Index speeches from this era so remarkable, because they ignored social conventions to speak about lynching, war crimes, free love, anti-war themes, and yes, votes for women, the right that would help women gain authority to speak on other issues. Later in this collection, you'll see women enter new spheres: politics, science, human rights and television. This grouping from The Eloquent Woman Index includes women speakers from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Dip into this collection and share it with other women and girls. Clicking through the links will take you to text, video or audio (where available), along with what you can learn as a public speaker from these famous speeches. I've updated this list to include posts on the Index through 2015.
1588: Elizabeth I's speech to the troops at Tilbury, a rare battleground speech by a great queen. We have three versions of it, none of them from her own time, so this one likely was rewritten and it's unlikely she actually said these stirring words.
1851: Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" is moving--but also was rewritten by others after its delivery, including its most famous line.
1866: Clara Barton's Andersonville testimony to the U.S. Congress is bald, gorey and honest on the topic of conditions for prisoners of war, and sparked a rare speaking tour for this battleground nurse in the Civil War.
1871: Victoria Woodhull's "Principles of Social Freedom" was well ahead of its time with its advocacy of free love, as was the speaker, who also ran for president of the United States.
1873: Susan B. Anthony's "Is it a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?" was a seminal speech in the battle for U.S. women's suffrage.
1909: Ida B. Wells "This Awful Slaughter" came at the first convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, taking on lynching directly at a time when it was rarely spoken of publicly.
1911: Rose Schneiderman's speech on the Triangle fire was itself fiery, a speech about the poor working conditions that led to the deaths of so many women garment workers.
In the same year, Marie Curie's 1911 Nobel lecture--for her second Nobel Prize--was careful to take full credit for her contributions to her science, as men who spoke about her did not.
1912: Mother Jones speaks to striking West Virginia miners in her trademark "hell-raiser" style, giving voice to their working conditions. The only reason we have the text is because the mine owners hired a stenographer to take it down, hoping to prove Jones was a violent danger.
1914: Nellie McClung's "Should Men Vote?" tweaked the nose of Canada's male politicians, turning around their words about why women should not get the vote in a funny mock debate that turned the tide for women's votes in that country.
1915: Jutta Bojsen-Møller's victory for votes speech came after Denmark gave the vote to women, summing up the struggle poetically. Great perspective and a great metaphor here.
1916: Helen Keller's "Strike Against War" reflected her pacifist views during World War I, an unpopular stance. And yes, this blind, deaf, nearly mute woman was a public speaker.
In the same year, journalist Ida Tarbell's "Industrial Idealism" speech was a rare speaking circuit lecture by a woman--who was sometimes advertised as "the woman who talks like a man."
1920: Nancy Astor's first speech in Parliament was the British institution's first "maiden speech" by a woman. This first woman MP more than held her own in a debate that began to change history.
1924: Juliette Gordon Low's Girl Scouts speech reflects the changing times of her day, including voting as one of the Scout's civic responsibilities.
1927: Aimee Semple McPherson's "speech in a speakeasy" was on one of the safer topics for women giving speeches. But this early televangelist did anything but play it safe to bring her message to the masses.
1928: Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" lectures took the time to parse why we have so few women writers, let alone speakers. These lectures became an inspiring book.
1903: Annie Oakley's libel cases and courtroom speeches were to defend her reputation, a one-woman effort that turned around a smear campaign.
1913: Emmeline Pankhurst's "Freedom or Death" explained this British suffragist's view of the stakes for women's votes--a more militant and even violent view than that of her U.S. sisters.
1935: Amelia Earhart's "A woman's place in science" brings radio into the picture. She broadcast this talk to encourage women to be consumers, careerists and researchers in the sciences.
1940: Eleanor Roosevelt's convention-saving speech, famous for its phrase "no ordinary time," kept her husband from losing the Democratic nomination, no small feat in this contentious conference.
1943: Dame Enid Lyon's "Strike a Human Heart" speech reflected the unique perspective of Australia's first female parliamentarian.
1947: Novelist and scholar Dorothy Sayers lectured on the "Lost Tools of Learning" in postwar Britain, making the case for a classic education--one evident even in her mystery novels.
1949: Eleanor Roosevelt on the UN Declaration on Human Rights shared her life's great work with women college students, and raises the curtain on the endless meetings needed to achieve this diplomatic tour de force.
1950: Margaret Chase Smith's "Declaration of Conscience" was a rare defiance of McCarthyism and communist witch-hunts--delivered on the U.S. Senate floor with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in attendance. A brave and important speech.
1951: Evita Perón's Renunciamento, in which she declined calls for her to become Argentina's vice president, came in the form of a radio address that reflected her personal approach to public speaking.
1962: Frances Perkins on the roots of Social Security was a lookback speech from the first female Secretary of Labor in the U.S., who was present for Rose Schneiderman's Triangle Fire speech, a lasting influence in her own efforts to help the working class.
1962: Jackie Kennedy's televised tour of the White House took a relatively new medium and made it her own. This wasn't just a tour, but a tour de force.
1963: Rachel Carson's "A New Chapter to Silent Spring" brought her message of environmental dangers to the gardeners of America, a major speech given despite her public speaking fears.
1963: Julia Child's "The French Chef" cooking demos took television by storm, giving a woman an unusual platform for extemporaneous speaking-while-demonstrating.
1964: Fannie Lou Hamer's convention committee testimony says out loud what black Americans went through in the struggle for civil rights. Her testimony didn't get her a seat as a convention delegate, but did reach a much wider audience.
1964: Lady Bird Johnson's whistlestop tour took place in town after town before U.S. southerners angry at her husband's signing of the civil rights legislation. Grace under pressure doesn't begin to describe it.