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Speaking While Female Takes Cue from a Legacy of Women Orators

March 8, 2022

In her new book Digital Suffragists, Marie Tessier puts the spotlight on the absence of women’s voices in comments made on today’s online news sites.

Tessier has spent the past ten years moderating and editing the online comment forums at The New York Times, where she says women’s voices are still drastically outnumbered by men’s. On a daily basis, she sees how few women put their ideas and expertise into the public square.

The same is true in public affairs forums, she says, where women still speak far less than men. Women still make far fewer motions at public meetings, at town hall meetings, and city council meetings. On a daily basis, she is struck by how many women hold back from putting their ideas and expertise into the public square.

What accounts for women’s reluctance to publicly advance their ideas, expertise and opinions?

Tessier notes that when it comes to public forums, it’s not a level playing field. Women receive far more criticism, harassment, and negative interruptions than their male counterparts. She also identifies a software design flaw — a linear blog comment formula based on gender-biased assumptions that she says impedes women’s participation.

In my own work, I point to a different reason. Gaps in the historical record.

Not long ago, I made a discovery —  that the history of public speech has almost entirely overlooked and ignored the significant contributions made by women. If women look to the past for examples of women like them, who overcame obstacles and put their ideas into the public square, they’re likely to come up empty handed.

I searched through 230 speech anthologies in the English language, looking for speeches by women. But out of thousands of entries I came up with only a relative handful, mostly from the suffrage speeches period, and a smattering of others. The same is true in many history and social studies survey books: they focus on oratory by men, not women. From looking at the books, you’d think that women have been mostly silent in history. But it’s not true: women have spoken up — but their words and ideas were not valued as men’s were, and often weren’t recorded. That’s why I created the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, the world’s largest online archive of women’s speech.

From looking at the books, you’d think women have been mostly silent in history. But it’s not true.

And it’s why I’m publishing a new anthology of women’s speech, Speaking While Female: 50 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women. The book will present examples of diverse women from every period in our country’s history, every profession, every walk of life, and tell the story of America through women’s eyes.

Because we all deserve to know about the women who came before us — their stories, their struggles, their achievements. It’s our intellectual inheritance.

When we know that a young woman named Molly Wallace stood up in a New England academy in 1792 to argue on behalf of women’s voices — that Antoinette Brown Blackwell made the same argument in 1893 — that Meghan Markle echoed the same sentiments in 2018 — that creates a powerful chain of connection. It’s a continuum of women’s experience and voice through time. That knowledge is our secret weapon — one that should no longer be secret.

I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising funds to publish a new anthology of women’s speeches, Speaking While Female: 50 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women. Through the campaign, I’ll be donating books to Girls Inc. DC, a nonprofit in Washington, DC that fights poverty, prejudice, and inequity and helps girls and young women aim high, achieve academically, and learn to advocate. Please support the campaign and women’s voices!

Dana Rubin is the founder and CEO of Speech Studio and a consultant, speechwriter, speaker, and trainer. A former award-winning journalist, she’s supported individuals at all career stages to become recognized, respected thought leaders and powerful communicators. She’s a popular public speaker on “The History of Women’s Speech” and a recognized expert on the overlooked history of women’s contributions to public oratory. Follow her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.



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