Public speaking has never been an exclusively male activity—but from the written record, you might think that until very recently it was, or nearly was.
Consider the early English settlements in what’s now the United States. Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, were two of the most celebrated preachers of their day, and many of their sermons are preserved, along with other writings. But the only scrap of public speech we have from Anne Hutchinson, the charismatic religious visionary whose controversial 1638 trial culminated in her and her followers’ banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is in the transcript of her trial. (“Now if you condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be the truth, I must commit myself to the Lord,” she said, in one of the first great American public statements of personal conviction.)
Or consider Eliza Harriet O’Connor, an acquaintance of George Washington who gave a lecture he attended in Philadelphia on women’s education while he was presiding at the Constitutional Convention. The convention debates are preserved and are among the nation’s founding documents—but O’Connor’s lectures went unrecorded.
Dana Rubin’s new collection, Speaking While Female, gathers 75 speeches beginning with Hutchinson’s statements to the court and extending to a 2021 commencement address by Bina Venkataraman, a journalist who wrote a story for the Boston Globe exposing Sen. Ted Kennedy’s hypocrisy in claiming to support renewable energy while blocking an offshore wind farm within sight of his family’s compound on Nantucket Sound (he demanded a correction, but there was nothing to correct). In between, we hear from a host of famous women, among them Sojourner Truth (“And ain’t I a women?”), Susan B. Anthony, Lillian Wald, Ida B. Wells, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lorraine Hansbury, Dolores Huerta, Fannie Lou Hamer, Temple Grandin, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The book itself was drawn from a like-named, web-based collection of women’s speeches that Rubin has been assembling for years, including texts from around the world and stretching back to antiquity. Her book focuses on American women, she writes in her introduction, to bring to light “the influence of women speakers to the formation of America”: a difficult project, given that speeches by women in the British colonies and then in the U.S. were seldom written down.
What’s most surprising about Rubin’s project, in fact, is how much is not here and how much exploration still needs to be done to fill it out. In early America, contrary to the common assumption, she found that women were a relatively familiar sight as itinerant lecturers and preachers—the successors of Anne Hutchinson—who spoke “in open-air groves, under tents, in barns, churches, meetinghouses and even prisons, delivering the divine word of God to audiences of both sexes and mixed races.” Harriet Livermore, one of the most famous of these, preached on Capitol Hill in 1821 to an audience of senators and House members. Her sermon was noted in the press, but not recorded, and none of her text appears to have survived. The same was the case when “Miss Paulyson,” an escapee from slavery in Alabama, spoke at a church in Manhattan in 1861; the Weekly Anglo-African reported, “We never heard anything to equal it,” but her text, too, is considered lost. Rubin cites numerous others.
Already by end of the 18th century came “a hardening of the separate gendered realms,” and itinerant women preachers and lecturers became less common. The pendulum swung back with the rise of first-wave feminism and the vast expansion of newspapers and wire services, including the abolitionist and leftist presses, reflecting women’s greater involvement in those forms of politics. Suddenly, the record expands and deepens.
Which brings up the question that Rubin’s title begs: what did it—does it—mean to be Speaking While Female? The women whose speeches she excerpts include abolitionists, suffragists, labor agitators, civil rights activists, transsexuals, artists, dancers, pacifists, one right-wing Cold Warrior, and Oprah Winfrey. Is there a consistent thread or threads running through all their public utterances?
I detect two things. The first is a demand for justice, for themselves and for others; many if not most of the women who Rubin gathers here fought for more than one cause, and often, their feminism was closely bound up with another concern.
Susan B. Anthony appears here in an 1872-73 stump speech calling for women’s suffrage, framing the stakes in the starkest terms; the present system “compels [women] to obey laws to which they have never given their consent,” she said, and “robs them in marriage of the custody of their own persons, wages and children.” Anthony was the daughter of a Quaker cotton-millowner who lost his business because he refused to use cotton produced by enslaved labor, and when she died in 1906, the Black activist Hester Jeffrey described her as “our friend for many years—our champion.”
An echo of this appears in a 1963 speech by the civil rights activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray to the Leadership Conference of the National Council of Negro Women in which she insisted that the demands for justice of African Americans and of women were not separate. “The Negro Woman can no longer postpone or subordinate the fight against discrimination because of sex to the civil rights struggle,” she said, “but must carry on both simultaneously.”
Michelle Obama further melded the two struggles when she gave a commencement speech at City College of New York in 2016 and told what seemed at first like a standard story of generational uplift in her family. “Graduates, it’s the story I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves,” she said, “and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, Black young women—head off to school, waving goodbye to their father.” When she repeated the story a month later at the Democratic National Convention, it triggered a torrent of groundless outrage from people who said it wasn’t true that much of the workforce on the White House was enslaved and branded Obama as “unpatriotic.” But she had joined together battles for civil rights and women’s rights as a triumph over white patriarchy in the house that it had built.
The other thread that runs through Rubin’s collection is more subtle. By Speaking While Female about an issue aside from women’s rights—lynching (Ida B. Wells), farmworkers’ rights (Dolores Huerta), Native American rights (Sarah Winnemucca, Ruth Muskrat, Martha J. Sara), wartime Japanese internment (Grace Uyehara), the chain gang system (Selena Sloan Butler), bilingual education (Aurora Lucero-White Lea)—women were claiming the right to engage on any number of matters that for centuries were seen as outside their proper sphere as mothers, housekeepers, and subordinates to men. They were refusing to confine themselves to “women’s matters.”
That would go too for the rabid anti-communist Clare Booth Luce, Cold War conservatives’ answer to Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s doubtful that even the wife of the powerful publisher of Time and Life magazines would have been able to deliver a 1945 speech in which she declared ominously that “these two worlds are doomed to come into conflict,” if a host of women to the left of her hadn’t fought for her right to voice an opinion on the matter.
How they did it may have had something to do, curiously, with their very identities as women. The speeches that Rubin includes here are powerful and uncompromising, but men in power—usually white—were perhaps more comfortable hearing from a women before a congressional committee, for example, than from a man, who they would have more readily perceived as challenging their authority. Women, in patriarchal mythology, were often granted a place, within limits, to speak for the family, community, and some notion of human values. Speaking While Female, in other words, could be its own form of ghettoization, but it was also leverage; many of the women in this book saw the opportunity and pushed it to the max.
Many of them went further, and that’s why I find one of Rubin’s most inspiring texts to be Betty Friedan’s 1970s farewell speech to the 4th Annual Convention of the National Organization of Women, her last as president of NOW. Unscripted, Friedan called for a “24-hour general strike … of all women in America against the concrete conditions of their oppression” on August 26th. “In every office, every laboratory, every school, all the women to whom we get the word will spend the day discussing and analyzing the conditions which keep us from being all we might be.”
Friedan had connections to the labor movement as well as Marxist and Jewish radicals, and the general strike, aimed at precipitating a revolution, was historically the operative demand of the anarcho-syndicalist movement. So there was nothing polite or unthreatening about the call Friedan made. She only got some 50,000 women into the street in New York on August 26, 1970, and the New York Daily News denounced them as “strident snobbish homewreckers.” But she had laid down a challenge that tied the most powerful tool of radical labor to the cause of women’s rights. It can still be taken up.
Surely more such public statements are out there, waiting to be rediscovered. And there’s more that Rubin could have included in her book; her website includes notable speeches by the anarchists Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Lucy Parsons, Jane Fonda, and the anti-feminist Phyllis Schafly, which would have added further edge to the collection.
But some of the most fascinating and enduringly timely texts here are by much less well-known women, which testifies to Rubin’s focus on the word and the message rather than the name. There is, for example, the 1866 congressional testimony of Frances Thompson, a formerly enslaved tailor and laundress, about her rape during a race riot in Memphis that spring. Ten years later, when she was arrested some months before her death, she was examined and found to be an anatomically male person who had chosen to live her life as a woman.
Speaking While Female is the first fruits of an important project of reclamation. Let’s hope that another volume will appear before too long.
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