Thursday, May 11, 2017

Should women speakers include--or avoid--topics about women?

The radio producer had found this blog and wanted to use it as a muse for a program on women and public speaking. Great news! Could I suggest some famous speeches by women to feature on the program? Why, I have nearly 250 of them in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. All good, right?

There was just one hitch: Could I please avoid suggesting speeches by women that dealt with women's issues, because, well, that's so tiresome. Overdone. Not "real issues."

So, um, what?

I was truly blindsided by the request, but probably should not have been surprised. After all, I've heard this from clients, as I reported in How are you referred to in speeches--your own, and those of others? and Do all your references to women in speeches refer to us as mothers, wives, and daughters? I hope it's clear that I believe in a woman's right to choose how she is described, particularly in her own speeches, and that gratuitous references to womanhood, just because the speaker is a woman, should be avoided.

But that's a far cry from eliminating all reference to women's issues in speeches made by women. In the weeks leading up to and following the Women's March on Washington this year, I heard many people--men and women--say, "but what is the march for?" or "about?" Senator Kamala Harris, speaking at the march, addressed that head-on:
We know that it is right in this nation to prioritize women’s issues. Now, here’s what I’m talking about in terms of women’s issues. 
So, when I was first elected District Attorney in San Francisco or Attorney General of California or  United States Senator from the state of California, in each of those positions, I was elected as the first woman or the first woman of color. And folks would come up to me and they’d say, "Kamala talk to us about women’s issues," and I’d look at them and I’d say, I’m so glad you want to talk about the economy. I’d say great. Let’s talk about the economy, because that’s a woman’s issue.  I’d say you wanna talk about women’s issues, let’s talk about national security. You want to talk about women’s issues? That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about healthcare. Let’s talk about education. Let’s talk about criminal justice reform. Let’s talk about climate change, ‘cause we all know the truth.

If you are a woman, trying to raise a family, you know that a good paying job is a woman’s issue. If you’re a woman who is an immigrant, who does not want her family torn apart, you know that immigration reform is a woman’s issue. If you are a woman working off student loans, you know the crushing burden of student debt is a woman’s issue. If you are a black mother trying to raise a son, you know Black Lives Matter is a woman’s issue. And if you are a woman, period, you know we deserve a country with equal pay and access to healthcare including a safe and legal abortion protected as a fundamental and constitutional right. 
So all of this to say, my sisters and brothers, that we are tired as women of being relegated to simply being thought of as a particular constituency or demographic. We together are powerful and we are a force that cannot be dismissed or written off onto the sidelines. 
And that means that asking anyone to avoid women's issues means women's speeches would be relegated to, well, zero content, wouldn't it?

Later on, I came across Sallie Krawchek's article, It's 2017. Why are we still telling women to act like men at work? In it, she says:  "I’ve worked at companies at which I felt like I couldn’t be myself, and I’ve worked at ones at which I could; and boy what a difference it made." I realized that one way to look at the idea that women's speeches shouldn't talk about women's issues is this: It's just another patriarchal way of silencing women. Yes, women can have absorbed such patriarchal ideas and pass them on to other women as received wisdom, as this woman producer did with me. We tell most speakers to be authentic and speak from personal experience, at least in part; that their individual perspective is what "makes the talk." But if women can't talk about a women's issue, what then? The request in effect robs them of the chance to be what we consider today to be a good speaker.

I come down on the side of giving women the option, for sure. Women speakers have so often been silenced in our world history that they deserve the right of self-determination for the topics of their speeches. And more than that, there is every reason for women to speak about women's issues. Women's issues are so often passed over that they, like the women speakers themselves, deserve a hearing...if that's what the woman speaker in question wishes to do. In any case, I will continue to highlight women's speeches about women's issues right here on the blog. Take a look at Senator Kamala Harris's talk in the video below:

Kamala Harris

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

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