From civil rights to the right to vote, women have spoken up and spoken out throughout American history. Brimming with great power and eloquence, here are twenty-one legendary speeches from the country's most inspirational female voices, including Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Spanning the centuries from 1851 to 2007, these are the rousing words that continue to endure in our nation's consciousness.
This distinguished collection includes these American women and their speeches: Sojourner Truth, "Ain’t I a Woman?" 1851; Susan B. Anthony, "On Behalf of the Woman Suffrage Amendment," 1880; Margaret Sanger, "A Moral Necessity of Birth Control," 1921; Mary McLeod Bethune, "A Century of Progress of Negro Women," 1933; Eleanor Roosevelt, "On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," 1948; Shirley Chisholm, "People and Peace, Not Profits and War," 1969; Geraldine Ferraro, "Vice Presidential Nomination Acceptance Address," 1984; Gloria Steinem, "A Twenty-First Century Feminism," 2002; Nancy Pelosi, "Speech Upon Her Election as Speaker of the House," 2007, and many more unforgettable speeches by spirited and influential American women.
About the Author
James Daley is the editor of several Dover editions, including The World's Greatest Short Stories, Classic Crime Stories, Favorite Christmas Poems, Great Speeches by African Americans, and Great Writers on the Art of Fiction.
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Great Speeches by American Women
By James Daley
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
AIN'T I A WOMAN?
May 29, 1851
Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree, was a slave in Ulster County, New York, until gaining her freedom in 1827. In 1843 she took the name Sojourner Truth and began her lauded career as an abolitionist and feminist. The following speech was given by Truth at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio. It was offered largely in response to a clergyman who had previously argued that women were too weak and helpless to be given the right to vote.
WELL, CHILDREN, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
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.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.CHAPTER 2
WHY SHOULD NOT WOMAN SEEK TO BE A REFORMER?
October 18, 1854
Lucretia Coffin Mott was an active figure in the nineteenth-century reform movements, but was best known for her work as an abolitionist and suffragette. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mott initiated the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848, and in 1850 published "Discourse on Women," her famous treatise on the societal restrictions on women in Western Europe and America. The following speech was delivered at the 5th National Women's Rights Convention in Philadelphia on October 18, 1854.
I HAVE NOT come here with a view of answering any particular parts of the lecture alluded to, in order to point out the fallacy of its reasoning. The speaker, however, did not profess to offer anything like argument on that occasion, but rather a sentiment. I have no prepared address to deliver to you, being unaccustomed to speak in that way; but I felt a wish to offer some views for your consideration, though in a desultory manner, which may lead to such reflection and discussion as will present the subject in a true light.
Why should not woman seek to be a reformer? If she is to shrink from being such an iconoclast as shall "break the image of man's lower worship," as so long held up to view; if she is to fear to exercise her reason, and her noblest powers, lest she should be thought to "attempt to act the man," and not "acknowledge his supremacy"; if she is to be satisfied with the narrow sphere assigned her by man, nor aspire to a higher, lest she should transcend the bounds of female delicacy; truly it is a mournful prospect for woman. We would admit all the difference, that our great and beneficent Creator has made, in the relation of man and woman, nor would we seek to disturb this relation; but we deny that the present position of woman is her true sphere of usefulness; nor will she attain to this sphere, until the disabilities and disadvantages, religious, civil, and social, which impede her progress, are removed out of her way. These restrictions have enervated her mind and paralyzed her powers. While man assumes that the present is the original state designed for woman, that the existing "differences are not arbitrary nor the result of accident," but grounded in nature; she will not make the necessary effort to obtain her just rights, lest it should subject her to the kind of scorn and contemptuous manner in which she has been spoken of.
So far from her "ambition leading her to attempt to act the man," she needs all the encouragement she can receive, by the removal of obstacles from her path, in order that she may become the "true woman." As it is desirable that man should act a manly and generous part, not "mannish," so let woman be urged to exercise a dignified and womanly bearing, not womanish. Let her cultivate all the graces and proper accomplishments of her sex, but let not these degenerate into a kind of effeminacy, in which she is satisfied to be the mere plaything or toy of society, content with her outward adornings, and the flattery and fulsome adulation too often addressed to her.
Did Elizabeth Fry lose any of her feminine qualities by the public walk into which she was called? Having performed the duties of a mother to a large family, feeling that she owed a labor of love to the poor prisoner, she was empowered by Him who sent her forth, to go to kings and crowned heads of the earth, and ask audience of these, and it was granted her. Did she lose the delicacy of woman by her acts? No. Her retiring modesty was characteristic of her to the latest period of her life. It was my privilege to enjoy her society some years ago, and I found all that belonged to the feminine in woman—to true nobility, in a refined and purified moral nature. Is Dorothea Dix throwing off her womanly nature and appearance in the course she is pursuing? In finding duties abroad, has any "refined man felt that something of beauty has gone forth from her"? To use the contemptuous word applied in the lecture alluded to, is she becoming "mannish"? Is she compromising her womanly dignity in going forth to seek to better the condition of the insane and afflicted? Is not a beautiful mind and a retiring modesty still conspicuous in her?
Indeed, I would ask, if this modesty is not attractive also, when manifested in the other sex? It was strikingly marked in Horace Mann, when presiding over the late National Educational Convention in this city. The retiring modesty of William Ellery Channing was beautiful, as well as of many others who have filled elevated stations in society. These virtues, differing as they may in degree in man and woman, are of the same nature, and call forth our admiration wherever manifested.
The noble courage of Grace Darling is justly honored for risking her own life on the coast of England, during the raging storm, in order to rescue the poor, suffering, shipwrecked mariner.
Woman was not wanting in courage in the early ages. In war and bloodshed this trait was often displayed. Grecian and Roman history have lauded and honored her in this character. English history records her courageous women too, for unhappily we have little but the records of war handed down to us. The courage of Joan of Arc was made the subject of a popular lecture not long ago by one of our intelligent citizens. But more noble, moral daring is marking the female character at the present time, and better worthy of imitation. As these characteristics come to be appreciated in man too, his warlike acts with all the miseries and horrors of the battleground will sink into their merited oblivion, or be remembered only to be condemned. The heroism displayed in the tented field must yield to the moral and Christian heroism which is shadowed in the signs of our times.
The lecturer regarded the announcement of woman's achievements, and the offering of appropriate praise through the press, as a gross innovation upon the obscurity of female life—he complained that the exhibition of attainments of girls in schools was now equal to that of boys, and the newspapers announce that "Miss Brown received the first prize for English grammar," etc. If he objected to so much excitement of emulation in schools, it would be well; for the most enlightened teachers discountenance these appeals to love of approbation and self-esteem. But while prizes continue to be awarded, can any good reason be given why the name of the girl should not be published as well as that of the boy? He spoke with scorn, that "we hear of Mrs. President so and so; and committees and secretaries of the same sex." But if women can conduct their own business, by means of presidents and secretaries of their own sex, can he tell us why they should not? They will never make much progress in any moral movement while they depend upon men to act for them. Do we shrink from reading the announcement that Mrs. Somerville is made an honorary member of a scientific association? That Miss Herschel has made some discoveries, and is prepared to take her equal part in science? Or that Miss Mitchell, of Nantucket, has lately discovered a planet, long looked for? I cannot conceive why "honor to whom honor is due" should not be rendered to woman as well as man; nor will it necessarily exalt her, or foster feminine pride. This propensity is found alike in male and female, and it should not be ministered to improperly in either sex.
In treating upon the affections, the lecturer held out the idea that as manifested in the sexes they were opposite if not somewhat antagonistic, and required a union as in chemistry to form a perfect whole. The simile appeared to me far from a correct illustration of the true union. Minds that can assimilate, spirits that are congenial, attract one another. It is the union of similar, not of opposite affections, which is necessary for the perfection of the marriage bond. There seemed a want of proper delicacy in his representing man as being bold in the demonstration of the pure affection of love. In persons of refinement, true love seeks concealment in man as well as in woman. I will not enlarge upon the subject, although it formed so great a part of his lecture. The contrast drawn seemed a fallacy, as has much, very much, that has been presented in the sickly sentimental strains of the poet from age to age.
The question is often asked, "What does woman want, more than she enjoys? What is she seeking to obtain? Of what rights is she deprived? What privileges are withheld from her?" I answer, she asks nothing as favor, but as right; she wants to be acknowledged a moral, responsible being. She is seeking not to be governed by laws in the making of which she has no voice. She is deprived of almost every right in civil society, and is a cipher in the nation, except in the right of presenting a petition. In religious society her disabilities have greatly retarded her progress. Her exclusion from the pulpit or ministry, her duties marked out for her by her equal brother man, subject to creeds, rules, and disciplines made for her by him, is unworthy her true dignity.
In marriage there is assumed superiority on the part of the husband, and admitted inferiority with a promise of obedience on the part of the wife. This subject calls loudly for examination in order that the wrong may be redressed. Customs suited to darker ages in Eastern countries are not binding upon enlightened society. The solemn covenant of marriage may be entered into without these lordly assumptions and humiliating concessions and promises.
There are large Christian denominations who do not recognize such degrading relations of husband and wife. They ask no aid from magistrate or clergyman to legalize or sanctify this union. But acknowledging themselves in the presence of the Highest and invoking His assistance, they come under reciprocal obligations of fidelity and affection, before suitable witnesses. Experience and observation go to prove that there may be as much harmony, to say the least, in such a union, and as great purity and permanence of affection, as can exist where the common ceremony is observed.
The distinctive relations of husband and wife, of father and mother of a family, are sacredly preserved, without the assumption of authority on the one part, or the promise of obedience on the other. There is nothing in such a marriage degrading to woman. She does not compromise her dignity or self-respect; but enters married life upon equal ground, by the side of her husband. By proper education, she understands her duties, physical, intellectual, and moral; and fulfilling these, she is a helpmeet in the true sense of the word.
I tread upon delicate ground in alluding to the institutions of religious associations; but the subject is of so much importance that all which relates to the position of woman should be examined apart from the undue veneration which ancient usage receives.
"Such dupes are men to custom, and so prone
To reverence what is ancient, and can plead
A course of long observance for its use,
That even servitude, the worst of ills,
Because delivered down from sire to son,
Is kept and guarded as a sacred thing."
So with woman. She has so long been subject to the disabilities and restrictions with which her progress has been embarrassed, that she has become enervated, her mind to some extent paralyzed; and like those still more degraded by personal bondage, she hugs her chains. Liberty is often presented in its true light, but it is liberty for man. I would not go so far, either as regards the abject slave or woman; for in both cases they may be so degraded by the crushing influences around them, that they may not be sensible of the blessings of freedom. Liberty is not less a blessing, because oppression has so long darkened the mind that it can not appreciate it. I would, therefore, urge that woman be placed in such a situation in society, by the recognition of her rights, and have such opportunities for growth and development, as shall raise her from this low, enervated, and paralyzed condition, to a full appreciation of the blessing of entire freedom of mind.
It is with reluctance that I make the demand for the political rights of women, because this claim is so distasteful to the age. Woman shrinks, in the present state of society, from taking any interest in politics. The events of the French Revolution, and the claim for woman's rights, are held up to her as a warning. Let us not look at the excesses of women alone, at that period; but remember that the age was marked with extravagances and wickedness in men as well as women. Political life abounds with these excesses and with shameful outrage. Who knows but that if woman acted her part in governmental affairs, there might be an entire change in the turmoil of political life? It becomes man to speak modestly of his ability to act without her. If woman's judgment were exercised, why might she not aid in making the laws by which she is governed? Lord Brougham remarked that the works of Harriet Martineau upon Political Economy were not excelled by those of any political writer of the present time. The first few chapters of her "Society in America," her views of a Republic, and of government generally, furnish evidence of woman's capacity to embrace subjects of universal interest.
Far be it from me to encourage women to vote, or to take an active part in politics in the present state of our government. Her right to the elective franchise, however, is the same, and should be yielded to her, whether she exercise that right or not. Would that man, too, would have no participation in a government recognizing the lifetaking principle; retaliation and the sword. It is unworthy a Christian nation. But when in the diffusion of light and intelligence a Convention shall be called to make regulations for self-government on Christian principles, I can see no good reason why women should not participate in such an assemblage, taking part equally with man.
Professor Walker, of Cincinnati, in his "Introduction to American Law," says: "With regard to political rights, females form a positive exception to the general doctrine of equality. They have no part or lot in the formation or administration of government. They cannot vote or hold office. We require them to contribute their share in the way of taxes to the support of government, but allow them no voice in its direction. We hold them amenable to the laws when made, but allow them no share in making them. This language applied to males would be the exact definition of political slavery; applied to females custom does not teach us so to regard it." Woman, however, is beginning so to regard it.
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Table of Contents
Sojourner Truth, Ain't I a Woman? (1851)
Lucretia Mott, Why Should Not Women Seek to Be a Reformer? (1854)
Susan B. Anthony, On Behalf of the Woman Suffrage Amendment (1880)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Solitude of Self (1892)
Ida Wells-Barnett, Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all its Phases (1892)
Lucy Stone, The Progress of Fifty Years (1893)
Jane Addams, A Modern Lear (1896)
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Appeal to the Cause of Miners in the Paint Creek District (1912)
Emma Goldman, Address to the Jury (1917)
Margaret Sanger, A Moral Necessity for Birth Control (1921)
Mary McLeod Bethune, A Century of Progress of Negro Women (1933)
Eleanor Roosevelt, On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Margaret Chase Smith, Declaration of Conscience (1950)
Shirley Chisholm, People and Peace, Not Profits and War (1969)
Geraldine Ferraro, Vice Presidential Nomination Acceptance Address (1984)
Ann Richards, Democratic National Convention Keynote Address (1988)
Mary Fisher, A Whisper of AIDS (1992)
Gloria Steinem, A 21st Century Feminism (2002)
Jane Fonda, The New Feminism (2004)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks on the Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (2006)
Nancy Pelosi, Speech Upon Her Election as Speaker of the House (2007)