No one has done more to research and champion the voices of women in history than Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. A professor at the University of Minnesota, she teaches and researches women in communication, rhetorical theory and criticism, and the rhetoric of presidential power and political campaigns.
But it’s her pioneering work in uncovering and honoring the history of women’s speech that wins my deep appreciation.
In the 1970s and 80s, Campbell began noting the absence of women in the rhetorical canon.
As she explains in her groundbreaking 1989 two-volume work, Man Cannot Speaker For Her, “men have an ancient and honorable rhetorical history. Their speeches and writings, from antiquity to the present, are studied and analyzed by historians and rhetoricians. But women, she wrote, “have no parallel rhetorical history.”
“Men have an ancient and honorable rhetorical history. Their speeches and writings, from antiquity to the present, are studied and analyzed by historians and rhetoricians. But women have no parallel history.”
The phrase “man cannot speak for her” comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech in the summer of 1848 at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Here’s what Stanton said:
“I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, having never before spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty, did I not feel the time had fully come for the question of woman’s wrongs to be laid before the public, did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation. Man cannot speak for her . . . “
Campbell set about to excavate and record women’s spoken words, and to establish the study of women’s rhetoric as a legitimate and credible focus of scholarly attention.
As her work makes clear, despite the many prohibitions and prejudices against them, women have indeed spoken up. But their words were not recorded, preserved, championed and studied the way that men’s were.
Campbell’s work could not be more relevant and timely today. Even from reading recent history books and speech anthologies, you might think that women have mostly been silent in history.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Their powerful oratory introduced radical ideas, ignited movements, introduced pioneering reforms, inspired groundbreaking legislation, and shaped the world we know.
When women’s speeches are overlooked and ignored, the history we learn is lopsided and incomplete. That’s why I created the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, with more than 2,500 speeches by women from across time and around the world.
When women’s words are not available to us, we lose the ideas of the generations that preceded us. Without access to their thoughts and words, we’re unaware that women before us have had similar experiences, have traveled similar paths, and have generated knowledge and insights that could inform and improve our own lives.
When women’s words are not available to us, we lose the insights and ideas that generations labored to create. We’re unaware that women before us have traveled similar paths and generated insights that could inform and improve our own lives.
We have to build on the past — but we can’t if we don’t know it.
Campbell has authored or edited eight books. Four in particular laid the foundation for the history of women’s speech:
- Man Cannot Speak For Her, Vol. I: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric
- Man Cannot Speak For Her, Vol. II: Key Texts of the Early Feminists
- Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook
- Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1925-1993: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook
I own them all. My copies are stained and splotched with coffee and red wine.
The second volume of Man Cannot Speak For Her has been a huge help to me, with complete texts of 25 key speeches by Maria W. Miller Stewart, Angelina Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Ernestine Rose, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Willard, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Catt, and Crystal Eastman.
Each of these women was an extraordinary thinker and speaker. Each advanced women’s rights in a different way. So critical were their contributions that it’s hard to fathom the history of women’s rights without them.
Campbell’s work laid the groundwork and inspired me to research and champion overlooked voices by women. And so today, I express my gratitude and wish her happy birthday
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