Friday, November 11, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Hillary Clinton's "women's rights are human rights" speech

Lists are underrated by speakers, but when Hillary Clinton--then First Lady of the United States--took to the stage at the 1995 UN Conference on Women, it was her list of atrocities committed against women and girls that held the audience in thrall. It wasn't that the audience hadn't heard the list before, since the listeners all were advocates for women's rights in countries around the world. But because such a prominent political woman gave voice to them, the items on the list took on a special significance...and the audience knew those words would carry beyond the room.

The Beijing location of the speech and conference lent an electricity to her words, given China's own human rights record and American diplomats' reluctance to publicly tackle those issues at the time. The New York Times described the significance of the setting and her words: "Speaking more forcefully on human rights than any American dignitary has on Chinese soil, Hillary Rodham Clinton catalogued a devastating litany of abuse that has afflicted women around the world today and criticized China for seeking to limit free and open discussion of women's issues here."

Early on, Clinton declared the grand goal of the conference: Helping women to speak. Here's how she put it:

The great challenge of this conference is to give voice to women everywhere whose experiences go unnoticed, whose words go unheard. Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70% of the world’s poor, and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write. We are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly. Yet much of the work we do is not valued -- not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders.
Her list of human rights violations against women around the world was simple, direct and pulled no punches. It included these atrocities:
It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls....It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small. It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.
The Times reported "As Mrs. Clinton recited her litany from the podium, many delegates applauded, some cheered and others pounded the tables." She brought the speech full circle with its most famous lines:

If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely -- and the right to be heard.
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Graphic, violent descriptions need no embellishment:  The list of atrocities and harsh treatment of women and girls is a marvel of simple, direct language. There was no need to stretch to make this list sound dramatic. Instead, simple stating the facts added all the drama. Here, the speaker's prominence, the location of the meeting and the harsh facts carried the day.
  • Mentioning women makes a difference: Yes, this was a conference on women, and perhaps it sounds obvious, but Clinton's defining line -- that "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights" -- had not been said before in such a prominent context, and it needed to be said. It's not a mistake that that line has been quoted again and again since this speech was delivered, so much so that it is the de facto title of the speech. It underscored her main theme, that women's issues have been overlooked, to the peril of women and girls around the world.
  • Delivery matters:  At this diplomatic-mission meeting, in a country hostile to these ideas and with the world watching, Clinton kept her delivery grave and formal to match the seriousness of the issue, and wisely let the audience and those watching from afar add the enthusiasm, cheers and accolades.

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