Several years ago, while reading a monthly periodical called Vital Speeches of the Day, Dana Rubin noticed something was missing: speeches by women. She emailed the editor to ask why there were so few women’s voices in the publication.
The editor replied that what he published was “descriptive, not prescriptive,” and he couldn’t commit to featuring at least one woman’s speech each month, because that would be “tokenism.”
Rubin didn’t like that answer. That experience launched her on a journey.
“The world has almost completely overlooked women’s speech and women’s oratory,” she said. “I started to look for women’s speeches and discovered there are a lot of them. I became an advocate for the rediscovery of women’s role as rhetoricians.”
Rubin, an award-winning journalist and curator of the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, shared a sampling of her research in a digital gathering on September 16, “From Shelf to Spotlight: The Hidden History of Women’s Speeches,” co-sponsored by the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence and the John Goodwin Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs at SMU. Alyce McKenzie, director of the Center for Preaching Excellence, served as commentator. Madison Lopez, an SMU student and Tower Scholar, moderated.
“Women have been speaking up and contributing their ideas for centuries, even though we have not acknowledged or recognized them,” Rubin said.
This omission means more than just a failure of giving credit where credit is due, Rubin added.
“I am a debate coach,” she said. “I judge high school debate. I believe very passionately about the clash of ideas. I want women to be challenged on the merit of their ideas, not on their looks, or how their voices sound.”
Rubin shared historic images – many of them disturbing — of torture devices used to silence women who “talked too much.” Despite cultural pressures to remain quiet, she said, many women throughout history have spoken up – effectively and eloquently. She gave three examples:
Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) was a native American who appeared on stage as “Princess Winnemucca” as part a vaudeville troupe billed as a showcase of “Indian royalty.” That show business experience gave her confidence as a public speaker and led her to advocate on behalf of Native Americans. In 1884, she testified before a congressional subcommittee on Indian affairs, describing the mistreatment of her people as they were forced to relocate.
Rubin tracked down the text of that speech at the Humboldt Museum in Winnemucca, Nevada. It had never been published before. She shared how Winnemucca skillfully pled her case for better treatment of her people, with heartbreaking and vivid descriptions of the privations they experienced as they were driven off their land and led on a forced march for 350 miles in the dead of winter.
Winnemucca said: “Women would be coming along crying, and it was not because they were cold for they were used to the cold. It was not because they were sick, for they suffered a great deal. The woman was crying because she was carrying her little frozen child in her arms.”
Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930 to mobilize white women, who gave hundreds of speeches to law enforcement, community leaders and school principals and at religious organizations and clubs. The women collected data and detailed the horrors of lynching. Often, they would visit a site immediately after a lynching took place to collect evidence. Sometimes, they would alert law enforcement to prevent lynchings from occurring. The women published brochures with action-oriented tips, such as “What One Woman Can Do to Prevent Lynching.”
Rubin described Ames’s arguments, which appealed to the self-interest of the white business community by decrying lynching as “bad advertising.”
“The South is going after big industry at the moment; a lawless, lynch-mob population isn’t going to attract much outside capital,” Ames said in 1939 to the Kentucky branch of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, in Louisville.” The women’s movement helped achieve verifiable results; the number of occurrences of lynching decreased considerably by 1938.
Juanita Craft (1902-1985) was a member of Dallas City Council and an organizer for Black civil rights who traveled all over Texas to set up chapters of the NAACP. A historical plaque commemorates her house on Warren Street in Dallas, which is undergoing restoration to become the Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights Museum & Education Center. Rubin cited an example of Craft’s skillful use of rhetorical technique in a quote from a 1977 commencement speech for graduates of H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas, in which she told the students, “Each of you seated before me tonight is like a high-yield bond which has finally reached maturity. . . you are capable of yielding the benefits.”
In sharing words from their speeches, Rubin noted how each woman employed carefully chosen rhetorical strategies to make her case: Winnemucca used the power of personal experience; Ames used the power of facts and data; Craft used the power of metaphor.
Rubin hopes that the rediscovery of voices of women like Craft, Ames and Winnemucca will inspire respect for women’s voices of the past, present and yet to come.
“A speech is not just words – it’s an act calling on the audience to act,” said Rubin. “These three women used their voices for change, and they were just three of thousands of women who have done this.”