On May 10, 1866, an African-American woman stepped up to make a speech in New York City. She looked out at the audience of mostly white women and began with a half-apology.
“I feel I am something of a novice upon this platform,” she said. And then she went on to deliver one of the most plaintive, searing, and commanding speeches in American history.
The event was the 11th National Woman’s Rights Convention, and the speaker was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a well-known abolitionist, suffragist, and traveling lecturer throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States.
Harper described the hardships she endured when, as a widow and mother of four without legal rights, she was stripped of her possessions, and the indignity she suffered as a black woman forbidden to ride the streetcars in Philadelphia. Her speech remains one of the most raw and harrowing expressions of the lived experience of a black woman after the Civil War.
“You white women speak here of rights,” she said. “I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me.”
Harper’s speech — known as We Are All Bound Up Together — lasted only about ten minutes, but no one who heard it could forget it. And yet it has been forgotten.
The speech was published in 1886 in the official proceedings of the Eleventh Women’s Rights Convention, and you can read about it online.
But you won’t find Harper’s words in any of the major speech anthologies published in this country, or any other. You won’t find similarly stirring speeches by women like Anna Dickinson, Maude Royden, Lillian Wald, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ida B. Wells — and hundreds more.
For the most part, the books that define public oratory overlook the role of women. Harper’s speech is just one example. Take a look at how little space these 26 speech collections devoted to female speakers.
Women have not been silent in history. They’ve spoken out forcefully and persuasively, despite centuries-old expectations that they avoid public life and speech – including religious prohibitions such as the practice of purdah in many Muslim and Hindu societies and the injunction in Corinthians that “women should be silent in church.”
But history is filled with examples of women who did speak up. In the 19th century many American women became hugely popular on the speaker circuit — their lectures and addresses were reprinted verbatim in newspapers and republished in pamphlets.
Thousands of women have spoken out all over the world on slavery, women’s suffrage, temperance, spiritualism — and just about every other subject under the sun. In the Progressive era, women reformers campaigned and spoke about birth control, poverty, economic equality, child labor, prison conditions, crowded urban slums, and other injustices of the day. Women speakers informed the populace, swayed public opinion, and shaped the course of history.
But when it came to collecting “the world’s greatest” speeches,” publishers and editors put the spotlight on men.
One of the first was The Columbian Orator, published in Massachusetts in 1797, which included not just speeches but poems, essays and dialogues. It was used to teach rhetoric, and Frederick Douglass, legendary for his oratorical skills, cited it in his autobiography as an enormous influence. Among the 82 selections were Cicero, Cato the Younger, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, but no women — no Hortensia, Elizabeth I, Anne Hutchinson, or any other woman whose early speeches were known.
In 1841, Scottish philosopher and author Thomas Carlyle delivered an influential series of lectures that were later published as a book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. The essence of his argument was that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Due to their superior intellect, heroic courage, even divine inspiration, Carlyle said, these men played the determining role in history.
This became known as the “great man theory of history,” and for more than a century it governed the way historians reconstructed the past. History was an unspooling narrative from one great man to another.
Carlyle’s ideas have long been debunked. But the myth of the male genius lives on in the speech world. And it runs contrary to what we know about the source of inspiring speech.
Some of the most electrifying rhetoric through the ages has come not from those with institutional power, but from those without. Their outsider status is what gives them the moral charge and clarity and to challenge the insular, hidebound thinking of the elite.
Does it really matter, some may ask, what’s published in speech collections? Do many people even read them anymore?
Perhaps a fair point, but preserving the contribution of women speakers isn’t just a dry exercise. The record of public speech is the expression and exploration of ideas over time. It’s the narrative of human thought and endeavor. And whoever controls that narrative controls more than the history books. That narrative governs how we see and understand ourselves, our place in society, and our ability to step up and become agents of change.
With men overwhelmingly represented in the speech books, their role in the past becomes legitimized in the present — without a significant role for women.
We need a new way of thinking about public speech — and about whose voice matters. That’s why I created Speaking While Female, the first-ever online library with hundreds of contemporary and historical women’s speeches. We need more recognition and celebration of female speakers through the ages. More role models for women to emulate. And more examples to embolden and inspire us.
Let’s celebrate speech that is democratically inclusive and welcomes all of us to speak up. Until women’s voices are heard, we shortchange the past and circumscribe our future.
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