Friday, July 8, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Margaret Sanger's 1929 self-silencing speech

Today, you can read tweets nearly every day that highlight the irony of conferences about rights for women that feature all-male panels. But how would you handle being a speaker at a free-speech conference when your particular topic--making birth control available to women--is banned?

It happened in 1929 to Margaret Sanger, a nurse and sex educator, and the founder of what is today Planned Parenthood in the United States. She prepared the speech for Boston's Ford Hall Forum on Free Speech, but as the topic of birth control was banned in Boston at that time, she came up with a different way to deliver her remarks. Sanger stood onstage, a gag over her mouth, while historian Arthur M. Schlesinger read her speech for her.

It's brief, so I'm going to share the entire text with you here:
To inflict silence upon a woman is indeed a drastic punishment. But there are certain advantages to be derived from it nevertheless. Some people are so busy talking that they do no thinking. Silence inflicts thoughts upon us. It makes us ponder over what we have lost--and what we have gained. Words are after all only the small change of thought. 
If we have convictions, and cannot express them in words, then let us act them out, let us live them! Free speech is a fine thing, it should be fought for and defended. 
If my voice is silenced by the hypocritical powers of reaction, in Boston, so much the worse for me, but so much the better for you for this act of suppression is to test the courage of your convictions, if you desire for free speech. 
It becomes your cue to speak, to act, to demonstrate the valor of your thought. 
Sometimes I think we all talk too much. We read too much. We listen too much. But we act too little. We live too little. The authorities of Boston may gag me, they do not want you to hear the truth about Birth Control. But they cannot gag the truth. We do not need words. We do not need to talk, because the truth speaks for itself. Use your eyes, use your ears, use your intelligence and you can find out for yourself all that I could tell you. You all know that I have been gagged. I have been suppressed. I have been arrested numerous times. I have been hauled off to jail. Yet every time, more people have listened to me, more have protested, more have lifted their own voices. Here have responded with courage and bravery. 
As a pioneer fighting for a Cause I believe in free speech. As a propagandist I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk and think the cause in which I live.
Boston's Mayor Curley's campaign against obscenity and unpopular political opinions in this era led to the phrase "banned in Boston," This speech was a singular effort to beat that ban at its own game. The organizers of the conference were hoping her simple presence would mock the ban, and specified that she would not be allowed to speak to the crowd of 800 in her invitation. Sanger took it several steps further with the gag and her remarks. She brought the crowd to silence, and a more serious consideration of what was happening to her, framing it as a test of her listeners' convictions on free speech. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • When you can't speak, go for the visual: The image of Sanger getting ready for the speech by having a gag placed on her mouth has been called the first photo-op of the 20th century. Your content is always most important in your speech, and your visual appearance and voice can either support or take away from your content. Here, Sanger made the visual a strong and compelling part of her content, demonstrating physically what was being done to her with the ban.
  • Use contrast to make your point: "It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk and think the cause in which I live" makes the point clear. Her silence would breed more commentary than if she had been allowed to speak. Using talking vs. silence and speech vs. action as contrasting points throughout her remarks allowed Sanger to emphasize each point clearly.
  • If there be rules, follow them...audaciously: Technically, this isn't a speech about birth control--it is mentioned just once in the context of what the authorities didn't want the audience to hear. Instead, this is a speech about free speech. In order to take the stage, Sanger couldn't focus on her topic, so she did not...but made an even stronger statement as a result.
Thanks to New York University, which has Sanger's papers available online, the full text of the speech also is here for your reference. This speech of Sanger's also was featured in the documentary The Ascent of Woman, available globally on Netflix.

A note from the editor: We've featured another speech by Sanger in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. The Girl Scouts of the United States shared our post on famous human rights speeches by women, which includes the Sanger speech, and an anti-abortion group accused the Scouts and this blog of having a bias in teaching girls to admire pro-abortion women. Politifact investigated and found the claim to be false, and in fact, that post and the entire blog include a wide range of views. The group also has violated the copyright of this blog by publishing screenshots of my content without express permission from me. 

Gagging women's voices can happen in all sorts of ways. A common way to try to silence women is to accuse them of saying (or writing) things they have not said, using public shaming and criticism as the gag. This blog is proud to publish a wide range of women's voices, and I stand firmly against the public shaming that aims to silence my voice and the voices of others, including efforts to silence Sanger long after her death. I don't ask you to agree with every opinion shared in these famous speeches, but please don't put words in my mouth or in the mouths of the speakers described here. -- Denise Graveline

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.