Friday, December 30, 2016

The 10 most important speeches by women in 2016

I've been asked many times to rank what I think were the most important speeches of the year by women speakers, but this is the first time I've turned myself to that task. And what I found in compiling this 2016 list was a mix of themes that are familiar to any woman who engages in public speaking.

2016 was a year of big defeats and stumbles: Five of the women whose speeches made this list were defeated, removed from office, or widely criticized. And yet they spoke up. They achieved power, or came close to doing so, and lost power or reputation, or both. And yet they spoke up. The optimist would say they've made enough progress to have the chance to speak, even in failure, but I think we may hope for more than that. These women's speeches were important despite the failure, and in many cases, they used the speech to make sure their views were noted and counted. In the world of women leading nations, we took 3 steps backward this year (U.S., Brazil, South Korea) and a step forward (England); together, those women leaders make up half of this top-10 list with 5 speeches between them. 

It also was, for women speakers, a year of speaking truth to power, be that power an opponent, society at large, an elected body, or an industry. Those who did so often used a speaking opportunity to witness an ignored truth. I am particularly struck with how many of them called out misogyny this year, plainly and clearly. That didn't end the practice, but helped their audiences understand what was going on. We are at a seismic moment of women using their voices against sexist treatment of women, and that's perhaps the most enduring trend I see from this year. 

Whether you agree or disagree with them is not the point: They have the right to say their piece. As classics scholar Mary Beard has noted, "It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it..." So let's give these women a listen, shall we? 

Each of these speeches is among the more than 200 speeches collected in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. At the links, you will find video and text (where available) for each speech, as well as some history, analysis, and tips any speaker can glean from these important speeches. They come from U.S., South Korean, Brazilian, British, and Australian speakers. I hope you find these speeches as fascinating as did I this year:
  1. Hillary Clinton's U.S. election concession speech, given despite her eventual nearly 3 million-vote victory in the U.S. popular vote, is still seen as controversial by her supporters;  her detractors found numerous ways to try to gender it and diminish it. But this speech drew some lines in the sand, and contains a special message to young girls who watched the possible election of the first female U.S. president.
  2. Michelle Obama's "enough is enough" speech about misogyny in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was a heart-stopper and equally important in its message to women and girls: The bad behavior was noticed, and not normal. As with her Democratic convention speech, it was all about the Republican candidate--but never mentioned him by name. That's a powerful tool for any speaker.
  3. Park Geun-Hye's pre-impeachment speech was one of a few unusually public--and failed--efforts to forestall her eventual impeachment. Perhaps this one was chosen to make sure she got the chance to speak for herself in an important way, since it contains a clear personal message from the woman president deemed to be "neuter" and "not a woman" by some.
  4. Dilma Rousseff's post-impeachment speech also ensured that she had the chance to counter the propaganda against her, and encouraged women to continue their fight for representation. This speech marked her second smackdown by a coup, and gave as good as it got, describing the hatred and misogyny behind what was happening. 
  5. Theresa May's first Prime Minister's questions signaled that Britain's second female PM could hold her own in the no-holds-barred atmosphere of this weekly session with the Parliament, the first of many to come. Her taunt of the opposition party leader used his own words to create a sticky metaphor and deployed it smoothly.
  6. Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president in an historic moment for America, and a revealing one for this speaker. If you're an introvert, this big speech is well worth a study. Well-written and well-delivered, it is indeed a presidential speech.
  7. Melania Trump's Republican National Convention speech got attention at first as a novel speech from a beginning speaker, and later for having plagiarized its content from none other than Michelle Obama. The furor and the error offer lessons for all women speakers, getting this now-First Lady of the U.S. off to a rocky speaking start.
  8. Linda Burney's maiden speech in the Australian Parliament wasn't just important because she's that country's first indigenous MP. She also used indigenous song, objects, language, and traditions--as well as strong words on racism--to make what is, today, a one-of-a-kind statement. But I think you'll see more women's speeches get creative in this way going forward.
  9. Beyonc√©'s speech on fashion and racism, given the night the fashion industry gave her "icon" status, described how it felt to have been rejected by every design house at the start of her music career...and thanked the family members who hand-sewed her costumes instead. I've heard many people wonder, not in a nice way, why her mother designs so many of her outfits. This subtle and powerful speech explains the racism behind that, the only decision left to the family.
  10. Lionel Shriver's cultural appropriation speech used a keynote at a writers' conference to cast aside her stated topic for a diatribe on political correctness, and to argue for the white author's right to appropriate other cultures. It wasn't popular at the conference, thanks in no small part to its mean-spirited tone, but it was famous, covered around the world. It is an example of the backlash against equality movements and identity politics so prevalent today--in effect, the opposite of numbers 8 and 9 on this list. I suspect it is a bellwether for more such speeches to come.
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