I’m writing to say our love affair is over.
For years I’ve been a fan of your work as a presidential historian and author of many well-regarded books, including your Pulitzer-winning biography of Andrew Jackson. I’ve admired your leadership of Random House. I’ve read and appreciated your essays in Time and Newsweek. I’ve watched you on C-SPAN, MSNBC, HBO, and many other media outlets.
I’ve absorbed your insights into the meaning of America, your explorations of duty, respect, civility, and other time-honored qualities that contribute to the soul of this nation.
That’s why I began listening with enthusiasm to your latest project, the podcast “It Was Said.” As a speechwriter, I was eager to hear your insights on, as you explained it, “some of the most powerful, impactful and timeless speeches in American history.”
Then you broke my heart.
“It Was Said” spotlights and examines ten extraordinary historic American speeches. Seven of those speeches are by men — and three by women. And while I’m counting, I’ll point out that of those three by women, only two actually qualify. (I’ll explain why in a moment.)
First, a recap of the landmark speeches you acclaim:
- Martin Luther King’s final speech, the night before his assassination in April 1968.
- Robert Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis, after MLK was killed.
- Barack Obama’s 2015 eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney and eight other victims of a mass shooting in Charleston.
- Megan McCain’s 2018 eulogy for her father, Sen. John McCain.
- Ronald Reagan’s farewell address as President, in 1989.
- Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts in 1954 that helped bring down Joseph McCarthy.
- Barbara Jordan’s keynote at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
- Hillary Clinton’s speech in Beijing on women’s rights and human rights, in 1995.
- John Lewis’s remarks at the March on Washington in 1963.
- President John Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech.
Indeed, all are stirring. All exemplify powerful oratory. All deserve our attention and respect. What’s wrong is that you represent the history of great oratory as an overwhelmingly male endeavor.
I’ve spent the past two years exploring the history of public speech. I’ve looked at which speeches have historically been considered “the greatest.” And I’ve taken a close look at the gender mix.
To be clear, we all know that in American history, as elsewhere, women have not held positions of institutional power and visibility like men did. Until relatively recently, women were not legislators, cabinet members, presidents or leaders of distinguished institutes and academies, corporate CEOs. Women did not have opportunities to speak in public to the extent their male counterparts did.
But that has not been as true for the past 70 years, the period you focus on.
And that does not mean women have not been powerful orators throughout American history, all the way back to Deborah Sampson Gannett, who dressed like a man and fought in the Revolutionary War. She went on the professional lecture circuit in 1802, the first woman to earn a living from her public oratory.
Since then, thousands of female speakers have delivered speeches that have articulated lofty ideals, with powerful prose, invoking values that rouse our spirits and speak to our better selves.
Here’s a few extraordinary, timeless speeches by women that you might have included in your podcast:
- Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1940 address to the Civil Liberties Committee in Chicago.
- Margaret Chase Smith’s 1950 Senate testimony, known as her “Declaration of Conscience.” Her words are arguably more important than Edward R. Murrow’s because she was among the first to stand up to McCarthy.
- Shirley Chisholm 1972 campaign announcement for US President.
- Michelle Obama’s “House Built By Slaves” speech, at the City College of New York graduation in 2016.
- Oprah Winfrey’s “Time’s Up” speech at the 2018 Golden Globes.
And so many more.
Over the past two years, I’ve examined 220 speech anthologies in the English language, published from 1797 to 2019. And I’ve discovered what they leave out: that women have been speaking in public, throughout history, forcefully and persuasively — with language that is powerful and memorable. But the world has largely forgotten them.
Women have been speaking in public, forcefully and persuasively. Their words are powerful and memorable, but the world has largely forgotten them.
That’s why I created the Speaking While Female Speech Bank — to recover the speeches by women that history forgot and make them accessible to younger generations. To rewrite the story of oratory.
Why does it matter when women’s speeches and oratory are omitted from the record?
Here’s why. Because when historians rely on an outdated, stock narrative of who speaks with authority, and whose words have consequence, they not only distort the past, they harm the present.
When they rely on an outdated, stock narrative of who speaks with authority, historians not only distort the past, they harm the present.
Our culture is powerfully shaped by the publishers of history books and the compendiums of debate and rhetoric, the creators of podcasts, the magazine editors who come up with the “10 best” lists, the conference organizers, the award givers, and all the other gatekeepers of our culture and shapers of our heritage.
As a onetime executive at one of the world’s top publishing firms, you know this. You know that when women’s voices aren’t proportionately included in the mix, that sends exactly the wrong message, to both men and women, including girls and young women — who take their cues from the culture.
Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that one reason women have not held as many public positions of authority as men is because their voices were overlooked, marginalized, and drowned out. But that does not mean they’ve been silent.
One reason women have not held as many public positions of authority as men is because their voices were overlooked, marginalized and drowned out.
Also, here’s why one of the three speeches by women on your list does not qualify. I’m referring to the eulogy delivered by Meghan McCain at her father’s funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
Your episode does not address Meghan McCain, her vision for leadership, her oratory, her values. You focus entirely on her father: his sacrifice, his exemplary life, his admirable leadership. It’s a heartfelt and searing eulogy, and I greatly admire it. But you pay homage to the man and his impact, not the woman and her speech.
The actual tally for your podcast should be seven men, two women, and one asterisk.
Jon, I hope you will take our break-up to heart, but not too hard.
If you create another series for “It Was Said,” if you spotlight more speeches, I’ll be listening and hoping. My fervent wish is that you will heed Abigail Adam’s advice to her husband — and “remember the ladies.”
Your former (and maybe future) fan,
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