Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. -Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth, 1851, Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio
When I first listened to Alice Walker deliver Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? speech, chills ran down my spine. The delivery of a good speech is thoughtful, provoking, yet uncanny to my ears. When a speech moves me, sometimes I believe that there may in fact be a higher power transmitting messages to me. Great orators are persuasive: using the combination of the syntax, phrasing, language and rhetoric, in addition to the delivery of speech, can move my ears.
As someone hoping to teach history to high school students, I try to search for primary sources to tell the story of history. One of my favorite sources to use in the classroom is historical speeches. However, most of the “famous speeches” I’ve encountered are by men. Where are the womenz, I want to know? They’re out there, for sure. And maybe there are one or two included in lists of audio clips like these–but only speeches by women from the U.S.
Speeches, when written well and delivered poignantly, can evoke power, inspiration, and motivation. Because of the lack of famous speeches by women in the mainstream, I yearn to hear more speeches by women. Below are a few speeches by women (starting off with Alice Walker’s rendition of Aint I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth). Each woman conveys her message with fervor–whether to an audience, a council meeting, or the internetz. What do you think of these speeches, and what about them makes them powerful? Feel free to include links to other speeches by women you admire in the comments below.
1) Alice Walker reads, Ain’t I a Woman?, the 1851 speech of abolitionist Sojourner Truth on November 11, 2006 in Berkeley, California. This is from a reading from Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove). You can read the transcript here.
2) Malalai Joya is a writer, speaker, activist and former politician from Afghanistan. This is an informal speech she made on December 17, 2003, at the Loya Jirga (“grand council” or mass meeting to discuss a major issue) on the proposed Afghanistan constitution in Kabul. In her brief speech, she addresses corruption and warlords in the country. She is an outspoken critic of the Karzai administration and western supporters of Karzai, particularly the United States.
This is a particularly fascinating speech. As the video shows, Joya is speaking in a room full of men. After Joya makes her brief speech and tells it how it is–proposing the prosecution of warlords who have corrupted Afghanistan and have oppressed their women–she is banished from the loya jirga. After what seems like uproar after Joya’s speech (it’s entirely clear if the crowd is in support of or against what she has just said), the Chairman announces:
The sister has crossed the line of what is considered common courtesy. She is banished from this assembly and cannot return.
The transcript of this short speech is built into the video:
3) Severn Cullis-Suzuki is an environmental activist from Canada. In 1992, she raised money for ECO (Environmental Children’s Organization) to attend the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The speech is famous and known as “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 6 Minutes.”
This speech is fascinating just for the mere aspect that Cullis-Suzuki was 12 years old when she gave this speech (she continues to be an activist for the environment to this day). Rarely do you see people allowing the space for youth to organize and speak out against a cause. But Cullis-Suzuki delivers her speech with conviction:
In my country, we make so much waste, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, and yet northern countries will not share with the needy. Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to lose some of our wealth, afraid to share.
In Canada, we live the privileged life, with plenty of food, water and shelter, we have watches, bicycles, computers and television sets.
Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with some children living on the streets. And this is what one child told us: ‘I wish I was rich and if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter and love and affection.’
Check out the speech below, and you can read the transcript here.
4) Asmaa Mafouz is an Egyptian activist and one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement. While this speech is not traditional–no podium, no audience at the time of recording–that doesn’t mean that this video didn’t reach hundreds of people. In fact, the video went viral as soon as it was posted to Facebook on January 18, 2011.
In the video, Mafouz calls for a revolution in Tahrir Square. She speaks directly to the camera and she’s not afraid to identify herself:
I’m making this video to give you one simple message: we want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25th. If we still have honor and want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25th. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights.
While there are captions on the video, you can read the full transcript here.