Speaking While Female: A History

Could it be true that the “great men” in history gave all the greatest speeches? Or could it be we just don’t know about great women speakers?

A portrait of some of the women at the first Continental Congress in 1774. (Mathew Brady / Facebook, Daughters of the American Revolution National Headquarters)

In September 1861, a young Black woman stepped up to speak at a church in Manhattan and described her escape from slavery. At a time when the Fugitive Slave Law was still in effect, a newspaper account identified her only as “Miss Paulyon.”

She talked about growing up in Alabama and how, at the age of 16, she traveled hundreds of miles on the Underground Railroad, and the hunger, thirst and cold she experienced along the way. For an hour and a half she spoke, interrupted by clapping and shouts of approval. At times, she moved her audience to tears. According to the Weekly Anglo-African, “[They had] never heard anything to equal it.”

No record exists of Miss Paulyon’s words—only a brief description of the event.

Nor is there a record of the words of Eliza Harriot O’Connor, who delivered a series of paid lectures in Philadelphia at the same time the Continental Congress was convening there in 1787. Thanks to recent scholarship, we can read five private letters she wrote—four of them to President George Washington—but there’s no trace of her spoken words.

Clarissa Danforth was a popular itinerant preacher in New England in the early 19th century. When she was called to God in the Free Will Baptist Church in 1815, she became the nation’s first female ordained minister. The press called her a “sensation.” Yet we have none of her actual words.

Thousands of American women like Miss Paulyon, Eliza Harriot O’Connor and Clarissa Danforth have courageously spoken in public over the past four centuries. Their speeches helped shape the beliefs, culture and ideals of America. But their voices have been omitted from American history, and our storehouse of common knowledge. The same cannot be said about the many lionized male orators who appear in our history books, media and public discourse.

I know because when I give talks and teach classes in public speaking, I ask my audience: “Which famous speakers in American history can you name?” Many people can rattle off at least half a dozen American male speakers like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan. But when I ask which women speakers they remember, there’s a long pause. Someone might mention Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama. Mostly the faces are blank.

Could it be true, I wondered, that the “great men” in history gave all the greatest speeches? Or could it be we just don’t know about great women speakers?

To answer that question, I began searching for speeches by American women. I began by looking at speech collections, published as far back as 1797. Out of nearly 250 anthologies, I found very few speeches by women. About a third of the volumes had none at all.

The influence of women speakers on the formation of America, this great national experiment, is still largely unknown.

A pioneer in the field of women’s speech, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell was among the first to try and set the record straight. In 1989, she published a landmark two-volume study, Man Cannot Speak for Her, “to call into question what has become the canon of public address in the United States,” she wrote, “a canon that excludes virtually all works by women.”

Three decades later, I embarked on my own historical excavation, looking for transcripts and other accounts of women’s spoken words. I searched in institutional repositories, history books and biographies, journals, old newspapers and out-of-print books. With a growing sense of urgency, I began publishing those speeches online. This collection formed a new global archive of women’s speeches called the Speaking While Female Speech Bank. Some of the speeches in the archive had not been published in more than a century.

My project is just one part of an ongoing recovery of women’s overlooked contributions in scholarship, the media and the arts that is challenging accepted narratives and opening up new ways to view the past. Women’s experiences, concerns and ideas were different from men’s. And yet, despite the work of Campbell and many other determined historians and researchers, the influence of women speakers on the formation of America, this great national experiment, is still largely unknown.

For a long time, the accepted belief among scholars was that no women speakers existed in America before 1830. That’s clearly not true. Indigenous women used their voices in public communication for centuries, long before the United States became a country. In the many tribes that gave women broad communal authority, women spoke on matters of governance, politics and diplomacy.

Other early American women speakers were itinerant preachers like Danforth, who traveled the rutted roads in a largely rural landscape. They 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. Their work was not for the faint of heart—travelling alone was dangerous for women.

With the late 18th century came a hardening of the separate gendered realms—women who stepped outside their allotted role to speak in public were often met with disdain. Many were either laughed at or laughed about. Yet still they spoke.

In 1806, the British evangelist and abolitionist Dorothy Ripley preached a sermon in the U.S. Capitol, with President Thomas Jefferson attending. We don’t have a record of her words.

Twenty years later, Anne Laura Clarke was travelling up and down the East Coast, giving paid speeches on history and cultural topics. She even used colorful charts and a newfangled “magic lantern” with slides to illustrate her talks. None of her lectures were published (but I’ve published her lecture notes in the Speaking While Female Speech Bank).

In January 1827, famed preacher Harriet Livermore—“the most interesting woman of the day,” according to one account—preached on Capitol Hill to a hall packed with senators, Congress members (all of whom were men), even President John Quincy Adams. But evidently no one considered her words that day important enough to write down.

Mary Ann Shadd.

In 1980, a dilapidated old clapboard house was torn down in Chatham, Ontario. To the surprise of the wrecking crew and the owners of the house, in the rubble was a cache of papers belonging to Mary Ann Shadd, an early Black American abolitionist. Her papers had been squirreled away in the attic—among them the only copy of her moving anti-slavery sermon, “Break Every Yoke.” Along with thousands of Black Americans fleeing slavery, Shadd had taken refuge in Canada after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, becoming North America’s first Black female publisher.

How many American attics are still hiding historic speeches by women?

Many were either laughed at or laughed about. Yet still they spoke.

Consider this: If a woman was scheduled to speak but no stenographer was on hand to record it, and no journalist thought it worthwhile to attend, then it’s likely no one wrote down what she said. Without those recorded words, no newspaper or journal could publish them, no editor could anthologize them, no history book could include them, and no one could quote them. The result is that room full of blank faces when I ask my students about women speakers.

What explains this colossal indifference toward women’s speech, this historical erasure? Why was it, as Mary Wollstonecraft wondered in the late 18th century, that throughout history, men have been accorded the mantle of authority, while women were “excluded, without having a voice?”

British classicist Mary Beard, author of Woman and Power: A Manifesto, tells the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who in the opening chapter of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, descends from her private quarters into the great hall and attempts to speak to the people gathered there, at which point her son Telemachus exclaims, “Mother, go back up into your quarters. … Speech will be the business of men.”

Beard calls this the earliest recorded example of a man telling a woman, “Oh do shut up, dear.”

But women refused to shut up. Behind every instance of “silencing” was a woman who wanted to be considered a thinking, rational, authoritative human being, a woman with a mind and a voice—and very often, she did speak out.

The cost of ignoring those voices has been high. As Australian scholar Dale Spender has noted, that absence has led every generation of women to ask the same question women before have asked: “How come I didn’t know about her?”

Imagine what a difference it could have made if women had access to the continuity of thought and language of those who came before them. Labor activist Ai-jen Poo, who speaks powerfully today on the rights of domestic workers and caregivers, builds on a long tradition that includes Californian Dolores Huerta’s speech to grape growers in the 1960s, Nannie Helen Burrough’s defense of Black domestic workers at an Atlanta conference in 1902, and Louise Mitchell’s ardent speech to tailoresses in Manhattan in 1832.

Without a documented history of women’s speech, as Spender says, most women speakers have to reinvent the wheel.

Speaking While Female: 75 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women, by Dana Rubin, was published June 6, 2023.

Speaking While Female: 75 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women puts a spotlight on 75 American women speakers, from 1637 to the present, and explains how each contributed to the making of the nation. It allows each woman to speak for herself. It invites us to consider our country’s history from the perspective of women’s experience. And it asks the question: Whose voices should define who we are?

Included are Indigenous women who, for much of their history, had no written language. Some of their words come to us through the pens of the U.S. treaty negotiators who kept government records.

Included are Black women who were enslaved and in most cases forbidden to read or write, but who nevertheless found a way to speak out and document their histories.

Included are Hispanic and Asian American women who fought for the right to preserve their language and culture and gain equal access to jobs and fair wages.

Included are white women of every class, background and belief who spoke for just about every cause under the sun.

Each woman who spoke changed the world we know through her public voice—some in ways that were direct and obvious, others more nuanced. It is a reflection of the incremental pace of change that many of them did not live to see their work come to fruition.

Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton nor Susan B. Anthony lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919. Deborah Sampson Gannett, who dressed like a man to fight in the Revolutionary War, did not live to see the Pentagon allow women to serve in combat roles in 2013. Clara Shortridge Foltz, who argued in 1893 that the poor deserved legal representation, did not live to see the U.S. Supreme Court hand down its 1963 decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, requiring states to provide legal counsel to indigent criminal defendants.

Just think how Frances Harper, who in in an 1866 speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” bristled with fury at being sent to the smoking car of the train in Washington, D.C., because of her skin color, would have greeted the triumph of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956.

Just think how Emma Willard, who in an address to the New York state legislature in 1819 advanced the outlandish notion that women should receive the same education as men, might have reacted to knowing that two hundred years later, women in the U.S. would not only be as well educated as men, but would significantly outnumber them at schools of higher education.

Speech creates change in ways often impossible to measure. Sarah Parker Remond’s 1859 speech, “Why Slavery is Still Rampant in the Land,” didn’t weaken Northern England’s ties to the textile trade. Not many people in America became anarchists because of the thundering rhetoric of Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons or Emma Goldman. And yet their words left an imprint, making it possible for less radical speakers and thinkers to be accepted and influential. Clare Boothe Luce’s clear-eyed warning about Russia helped sharpen our sense of that country’s territorial ambitions and authoritarian nature. Without women’s speech, the world we inhabit would not exist.

One of my hopes is that this book will encourage more students and scholars to join the quest for missing women’s speeches. So many more remain to be uncovered, and without them, the historical record is not only incomplete—it’s inaccurate. To know American history, we must hear these women speak.

In tandem with that, I want teachers, textbook writers, and the media to include these women and their robust voices in the narrative of the nation. A recent study by the National Women’s History Museum found that less than one quarter of all the historical figures studied from kindergarten through 12th grade in the U.S. were women. Let’s change that.

At the top of my list is the desire for more women and girls to use their voices and speak out, bolstered by the knowledge that we do have an accessible and inspirational past. It’s because those women spoke out then that we are able to speak out today.

We have the freedom and the privilege—so let’s use it.

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Dana Rubin is a consultant and speaker who’s on a mission to encourage more women to put their views into the public square. She created the free online archive, the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, to broaden awareness of women speakers in history. She’s also just published Speaking While Female: 75 Extraordinary Speeches by American Women, showing that women speakers have been contributing to the ideals and institutions of the nation for four centuries, even though this history books have largely overlooked them.