Words are ideas: A Yalie diversifies the roster of great American speeches
Why are the most-quoted speeches, the ones whose words are etched into the national consciousness, almost always speeches by men? This question plagued former journalist and speechwriter Dana Rubin ’82 B.A.
Her interest in the issue started a couple of years ago, after she picked up William Safire’s 2004 book “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History,” a compendium of 233 speeches that includes only 13 by women. It grew as Rubin reviewed other anthologies of American speeches — eventually amassing a collection of 115 books — and discovered a strikingly similar pattern. Many anthologies contained no speeches by women. Those that did featured just a handful by women — Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and a few others.
The exclusion of women’s voices, and the voices of women of color in particular, has consequences, said Rubin. “The history of speech is the history of ideas. Women’s language and speech were not there. These editors and publishers weren’t interested in women’s ideas and concerns.”
In response, Rubin founded the Speaking While Female Speech Bank in December 2018. The website features over 2,000 speeches by women across 33 categories, including the anti-slavery movement, health and medicine, protests and rallies, issues of race, U.S. politics, and women’s right to vote.
Speaking While Female not only highlights the words of women on the forefront of industry and social change throughout U.S. history; it also calls attention to women whose names have been largely forgotten.
Rubin, who has written for the Texas Monthly and Reader’s Digest and served as a speechwriter for publicly traded companies, nonprofits, and public figures such as Martha Stewart, seeks out speeches by women everywhere — in books, archives, old newspapers, and historical society records. “I’ve been an excavator,” she said. “Some of these speeches are in hidden recesses, but they’re not impossible to find.”
Speaking While Female serves as a reminder of how many women have been overlooked in history, including women of color, said Rubin, who transferred to Yale from Smith College and majored in history. These include Sarah Parker Remond, a Black woman born free in Massachusetts in 1826 who became an abolitionist and speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Remond was sent to England by the society, and there delivered an impassioned speech, “Why Slavery Is Still Rampant in the Land,” in which she criticized the British for profiting off a cotton trade driven by slavery.
“When I walk through the streets of Manchester, and meet load after load of cotton,” Remond said, “I think of those eighty thousand cotton plantations on which was grown the one hundred and twenty-five millions of dollars’ worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money has ever reached the hands of the laborers.”
The site also highlights abolitionist speaker Frances E.W. Harper, born free in Baltimore in 1825. Rubin said everyone should know Harper’s speech “We Are All Bound Up Together,” delivered in 1866 at the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City.
Even as Harper called for a woman’s right to vote, she reserved her harshest criticism for white women in the audience. “If there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness,” she said, “it is the white women of America.”
“She really calls the white women in the audience to task, and explains how all of us in humanity are interdependent and bound together,” said Rubin.
In addition to running the site, Rubin offers workshops for women on public speaking and storytelling through her Speaking While Female consultancy and has presented a number of these for Yale groups, including the Jackson Institute, Women in Science at Yale, and Yale Women Engineers. She recently gave a keynote at the Equity in the Job Search Symposium, an annual event to promote gender equity in STEM fields, which is hosted by the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
In all her work, she said: “I’m focused on restoring to public awareness women’s speech and contributions.”
This profile is part of series featuring Yale women alumni who are making a difference created for the 50WomenAtYale150 initiative, celebrating 50 years of coeducation and 150 years of women at Yale. Learn more at the 50WomenAtYale150 website.