We celebrate the speeches spoken by great women who have inspired us over the years - and changed our world for the better
Words by Kat Lister
It’s easy for women to get lost in a sea of historic rhetoric. The words of Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi and Emmeline Pankhurst regularly lose out in the all-time greatest speeches polls to the weight of history. In other words: to men, politics and power; Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Steve Jobs…
Swimming against the current, women have had to speak louder to get their voices heard. In the words of Virginia Woolf, they’ve had to create a room of their own. Our list today aims to open the doors and peer inside. We’re here to celebrate the women who found a room and encouraged others to do the same. That doesn’t mean our work is done, however.
In a social and political landscape where women are still under-represented, Emma Watson’s recent UN ‘He For She’ speech showed us just how important it is for women to continue to speak up and speak out, four centuries after Elizabeth I rallied the troops at Tilbury’s battlefield like Athena reborn.
Which is why we’re giving these 10 amazing women top-billing in our 10 greatest speeches of all time. Women who have inspired us over the decades and changed our world for the better…
1. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ (1928)
‘My belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…’
Based on a series of lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, Cambridge University, in October 1928, ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ has since been heralded as a feminist manifesto. Her words continue to inspire women in 2015 nearly a century after she first spoke them. The speech strikes at the heart of patriarchy and argues that without financial independence and access to education, ideological, social and creative freedom is out of reach. Virginia knew this truth all too well: her own father believed only boys profited from schooling. As a result, she didn’t go. Her strength of spirit defied even her own father: ‘Lock up your libraries if you like’, she said, ‘but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’
2. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Freedom or Death’ (1913)
‘We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.’
In November, 1913, just five months after fellow Suffragette Emily Davison stepped in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby and suffered fatal injuries, Emmeline Pankhurst spoke out to the crowds in Connecticut. She was far from home but her fight was a universal one and her aim was clear: to gather support across the Atlantic. ‘So here am I’, she declared. ‘I come in the intervals of prison appearance. I come after having been four times imprisoned under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, probably going back to be rearrested as soon as I set my foot on British soil. I come to ask you to help to win this fight.’
3. Elizabeth I, ‘Speech to the Troops at Tilbury’ (1588)
‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.’
Historically speaking, speeches on the battlefront are predominantly a man’s affair. Not so, here. On 19 August, 1588, England’s Queen – dressed in plumed helmet, white velvet gown and clutching a silver baton – gave the speech of her life, towering fearlessly on top of a white horse. Ready to fight, Athena, goddess of war, was reborn under a ruff. Monarch, political leader, military general, demi-goddess: The power of Elizabeth’s words as she rallied her troops make her all of these incarnations and more – so much more. Let’s not forget this was 15th century England and she was a woman.
4. Hillary Clinton, ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’ (1995)
‘If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.’
Five words that said it all: ‘Women’s rights are human rights’. In 1995, Hillary Clinton’s speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing marked a watershed moment for women’s rights. What makes this speech so inspirational isn’t just the words she spoke but where she spoke them. Defying both US administration and Chinese pressure to dilute her remarks, she went for the jugular. It was a full-blown attack against policies abusing ‘unheard’ women around the globe – not just China. Her manifesto was clear: ‘As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace around the world – as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled and subjected to violence in and out of their homes – the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.’
5. Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ (1851)
‘I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?’
Named Isabella Baumfree, it says a great deal about Sojourner that she called herself Truth. She spoke it. An African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was born into slavery in New York, sold at auction with a flock of sheep for $100 in 1806, escaping with her baby daughter in 1826. She bravely won her son back through the courts and was the first black woman to win a case against a white man. At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, she sensationally struck at the heart of gender inequality asking: ‘And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?’
6. Nora Ephron, ‘Commencement Address To Wellesley Class Of 1996’ (1996)
‘Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.’
When Nora Ephron tragically died in 2012, out of the many important contributions she made to the blank page, it was her commencement address to her old college in the mid-nineties that became the most widely-shared. It’s not hard to understand why. Nora’s address to these young women is the ultimate “how to” guide for womankind, written with beauty, insight, humour and urgency like only Nora knew how. Highlighting just how far women had come (‘If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey with $500 in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic’), Nora also spiked her speech with words of caution: ‘Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you,’ she rallied. ‘When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you.’ Her words still echo today and one sentence rings eternally true: ‘Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’
7. Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘Freedom From Fear’ (1990)
‘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.’
Burma’s ‘woman of destiny’ has inspired millions during her lifetime of political activism and captivity, held under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years in Burma. Receiving the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, this now-famous speech followed in acceptance appeals to the spirituality of human nature: it’s bravery, compassion and conviction.
8. Gloria Steinem, ‘Address to the Women of America’ (1971)
‘This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy, 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.’
In 1971, a year before she co-founded feminist magazine Ms, at the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Gloria Steinem delivered an Address to the Women of America. It would soon be regarded as one of the most memorable speeches of the second-wave feminist era. What made her speech so powerful wasn’t just its attack on sexism, but its focus on the intersectional issues of racism and class.
9. Julia Gillard, ‘The Misogyny Speech’ (2012)
‘Good sense, common sense, proper process is what should rule this Parliament. That’s what I believe is the path forward for this Parliament, not the kind of double standards and political game-playing imposed by the Leader of the Opposition now looking at his watch because apparently a woman’s spoken too long.’
There was just one word on our lips when we first heard Gillard’s spectacular slap-down of political rival Tony Abbott a few years ago: YES! Her angry words struck a blow for misogyny the world over and the speech itself went viral across the globe. It was quickly dubbed ‘The Misogyny Speech’ and for good reason: ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,’ she blasted. Within just a week, a YouTube upload of this speech already had had one million views.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)
‘Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Maya Angelou was only the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration, and the first African American and woman.Touching upon the themes of change, inclusion and responsibility, it has since be called Angelou’s ‘autobiographical poem’.