Great speeches by women, decade by decade 1970-2023 — Part 2
I've gone through the Speakola library and found some great speeches by women, decade by decade, since 1910. This is part two which will take us from 1970 to the present.
Part 1 was released earlier this week and featured Nellie McLung, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Ibárruri, Jessie Street, Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm.
Gloria Steinem: 'It really is a revolution', Address to the Women of America - 10th July 1971
I’ve searched and searched for the full transcript of this one, but no luck online. Steinem became famous as a co-founder of Ms. magazine and one of the leading feminist voices of the second wave. She is a world class speaker and journalist, her gonzo piece on working as a bunny at the Playboy Club in New York in 1963 is a classic of the genre. This is perhaps her most famous speech, and this the fragment that is always quoted:
This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.
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Ursula Le Guin: 'We are volcanoes' commencement, Bryn Mawr, May 1986
Ursula Le Guin was a science fiction writer, a creator of universes, and like the best authors of that genre, had an extraordinary understanding of her own world. Bryn Mawr College is a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and when Le Guin delivered ‘we are volcanoes’ in 1986, she hit on the hard truths of gender oppression, and in particular the language of power, which she called ‘the father tongue’:
Our schools and colleges, institutions of the patriarchy, generally teach us to listen to people in power, men or women speaking the father tongue; and so they teach us not to listen to the mother tongue, to what the powerless say, poor men, women, children: not to hear that as valid discourse.
I am trying to unlearn these lessons, along with other lessons I was taught by my society, particularly lessons concerning the minds, work, works, and being of women. I am a slow unlearner. But I love my unteachers - the feminist thinkers and writers and talkers and poets and artists and singers and critics and friends, from Wollstonecraft and Woolf through the furies and glories of the seventies and eighties - I celebrate here and now the women who for two centuries have worked for our freedom, the unteachers, the unmasters, the unconquerors, the unwarriors, women who have at risk and at high cost offered their experience as truth. "Let us NOT praise famous women!" Virginia Woolf scribbled in a margin when she was writing Three Guineas, and she's right, but still I have to praise these women and thank them for setting me free in my old age to learn my own language.
Read the whole speech here:
The most often quoted section is the final lines. Maybe it’s the greatest end to any commencement speech?
I know that many men and even women are afraid and angry when women do speak, because in this barbaric society, when women speak truly they speak subversively - they can't help it: if you're underneath, if you're kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.
That's what I want - to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don't know the power in you - I want to hear you. I want to listen to you talking to each other and to us all: whether you're writing an article or a poem or a letter or teaching a class or talking with friends or reading a novel or making a speech or proposing a law or giving a judgment or singing the baby to sleep or discussing the fate of nations, I want to hear you. Speak with a woman's tongue. Come out and tell us what time of night it is! Don't let us sink back into silence. If we don't tell our truth, who will? Who'll speak for my children, and yours?
So I end with the end of a poem by Linda Hogan of the Chickasaw people, called "The Women Speaking."
Daughters, the women are speaking
over the wise distances
on perfect feet.
Daughters, I love you.
Aung San Suu Kyi: 'It is not power that corrupts but fear', Freedom from Fear - October 1990
There’s no video of this one, but the text swept around the world in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year and became a symbol of political courage and democratic ideal as she laboured through two decades of house arrest. She was released in 2010 and her NLD party won the Myanmar election in 2015. In 2018-9 she came under fire for defending the Burmese military against allegations of genocide against the Rohingya, and for turning a blind eye to massacres, which has seen organisations such as Amnesty International and the US Holocaust Museum withdraw previously awarded honours. After the 2021 coup, she was charged and tried on trumped up corruption allegations by the junta, and has cumulative sentences of 17 years.
The Freedom from Fear speech is a 20th century classic. You can read the full transcript here:
Gandhi, that great apostle of non-violence, and Aung San, the founder of a national army, were very different personalities, but as there is an inevitable sameness about the challenges of authoritarian rule anywhere at any time, so there is a similarity in the intrinsic qualities of those who rise up to meet the challenge. Nehru, who considered the instillation of courage in the people of India one of Gandhi's greatest achievements, was a political modernist, but as he assessed the needs for a twentieth-century movement for independence, he found himself looking back to the philosophy of ancient India: 'The greatest gift for an individual or a nation ... was abhaya, fearlessness, not merely bodily courage but absence of fear from the mind.' Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.
Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.
Dilma Rousseff: "We are not in a dialogue between my neck and the gallows, senator" - 7 May 2008
Dilma Rousseff, future president of Brazil delivered this smackdown when Agripino Maia, a former member of the junta regime, had the gall to question her honesty when under interrogation as a dissident, suffering torture.
Senator José Agripino Maia (DEM): You have lied to the dictatorship; are you going to lie here?
Dilma Rousseff: Any comparison between the military dictatorship and Brazilian democracy can only come from those who do not value the Brazilian democracy.
I was 19, I spent three years in jail and was brutally tortured, senator. And anyone who dares to tell the truth to his interrogators, compromises the life of their equal and gives people away to be killed. I am very proud to have lied, senator, because lying in torture is not easy. Now, in democracy, truth is spoken; on the face of torture, the ones who have courage, dignity, they lie. And that (applause), and that, senator, is part of, and integrates my biography; I'm very proud, and I'm not talking about heroes.
Happy is the people who does not have such heroes, senator, because to endure torture is something very difficult, because we are all very fragile, all of us. We are humans, we feel pain, and the seduction, the temptation to talk about what happened and tell the truth is immense senator, the pain is unbearable, you can not imagine how unbearable it is.
So I am proud to have lied, I pride myself immensely in having lied, because I saved companions of their own torture and death. I have no commitment to the dictatorship in terms of telling the truth. I was in a field and they were in another, and what was at stake was my life and that of my companions.
Reese Witherspoon: 'Ambition is not a dirty word', Glamour Magazine, Woman of the Year, 9 November 2015
Reese Witherspoon has become a champion of women in film and television in recent years with her ‘Hello Sunshine’ production company. She explains the motivations for creating a production house that unashamedly puts women’s stories front and centre in an inspiring and often hilarious speech at Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year in 2015. My wife’s second cousin, Sarah Harden is the CEO of Hello Sunshine, and I hold out hope of one day finding half an hour in Reese Witherspoon’s incredibly busy diary for my Speakola podcast, to talk about this speech. She’d launch us into the stratosphere!
But I was flabbergasted. This was 2012, and it made no sense to me. Where was our Sally Field in Norma Rae or Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Goldie Hawn in, you name it, any Goldie Hawn movie: Overboard, Wildcats, Private Benjamin? These women shaped my idea of what it meant to be a woman of strength and character and humor in this world. And my beautiful, intelligent daughter, who is 16 years old now, would not grow up idolizing that same group of women.
Instead, she'd be forced to watch a chorus of talented, accomplished women Saran wrapped into tight leather pants, tottering along on very cute, but completely impractical shoes, turn to a male lead and ask breathlessly, "What do we do now?!"
Seriously, I'm not kidding. Go back and watch any movie, and you'll see this line over and over. I love to ask questions, but it's my most hated question.
I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation because inevitably I get to that part where the girl turns to the guy, and she says, ‘What do we do now?!’ Do you know any woman in any crisis situation who has absolutely no idea what to do? I mean, don't they tell people in crisis, even children, ‘If you're in trouble, talk to a woman.’ It's ridiculous that a woman wouldn't know what to do.
Kamala Harris: 'But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last', Vice President acceptance - 2020
In the heated aftermath of the 2020 election, both Harris and Biden delivered strong speeches as they claimed victory at a covid affected celebration in Delaware that was more like a drive-in soundscape with honking horns than a political rally. But Harris’s words were beautiful, and historic, as she claimed her status as America’s first female vice president.
All the women who worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century: 100 years ago with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago with the Voting Rights Act and now, in 2020, with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.
Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be, unburdened by what has been. And I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president.
But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.
Hope you enjoyed this list. It’s taken a while to compile — garn, chuck me a paid subscription! It’s less than US$4 a month.
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