Why is it that when most experts are asked to name the greatest speeches ever given, the resulting list nearly always exclusively features speeches given by men?
As anyone who has witnessed enough speeches firsthand can confirm, public speaking prowess does not belong to any one gender, race, or religion. Nevertheless, it certainly is true that historically, great speeches by women have failed to get anywhere close to the same level of recognition as comparable speeches by their male counterparts.
So, with huge indebtedness to the excellent Eloquent Women Blog by the late Denise Graveline, and Dana Rubin and her ‘Speaking while female‘ speech bank (who have both compiled by far the best resource of speeches by women), here is a list of 10 of the greatest speeches ever given, which also happen to be speeches by women (in reverse order).
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Prefer to watch a video of the list? Here you go:
10. Malala Yousafzi
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize (2014)
As the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is an inspiration to young women the world over.
Her speech is an excellent example of determination, resilience and humility.
Best line? “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not”
9. Hillary Clinton
‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ Speech (1995)
Clinton (Hillary, that is) ain’t no Clinton (Bill, that is) when it comes to speechmaking.
Bill had a natural talent for connecting with his audience in a way that Hilary by her own admission does not have. But way back before she decided to run for President and before Monica Lewinsky was just a glint in Bill Clinton’s eye, Hillary gave a very impressive speech in China no less about the critical need to elevate world thinking about the importance of women’s rights.
Perhaps we should have known back then that what she really wanted was to be the POTUS and not just the FLOTUS.
Best line? “Women’s rights are human rights“
8. Oprah Winfrey
Accepting the Golden Globe Award (2018)
No list about great women is complete without Oprah!
She gave this speech at a time when many were sincerely hoping that she would announce a run for the Presidency and this speech did nothing to quell those hopes and rumours. With its inspiring and uplifting message about female empowerment, this was a tour de force that had a few in the audience crying (It’s Oprah, after all) and literally lifted a celebrity-packed audience to its feet.
Best line? “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up!”
7. Emmeline Pankhurst
Freedom or Death Speech (1913)
Tricky picking speeches for which there is no recorded footage, but you only have to read the transcript of this speech to appreciate its power. Imagine a time when women had to go on hunger strikes, burn down men-only golf clubs, or get trampled to their death by horses at the Kings Derby, just to get men to pay attention.
It is this context that gives the bravery of Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech its greatness.
One passage in particular, struck me as incredibly radical yet directly on point.
“You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks and makes everybody unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.”
What better and more attention-grabbing way for someone fighting for her rights as a woman, than to use an analogy involving babies to make a political point.
Best line? “We will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”
6. Maya Angelou
On the Pulse of the Morning – Clinton Inauguration (1993)
I suspect if any other person had delivered this poem (which is a pretty decent poem), it would have been well received, but not lauded.
The true genius of this speech lies in the delivery. That earthy rasping voice of Maya Angelou is just mesmerising. It infuses each word, each phrase, and each line with such gravitas that you can’t help but be absorbed by it. She doesn’t speak or recite, rather her voice is so melodic, so beautifully rhythmic, that she is almost singing.
And very noticeably, the huge throng of ordinary men and women in the crowd – most of whom had probably not read or listened to a poem since school, watched in complete enthralled silence.
Halfway through. What do you think?
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5. Julia Gillard
On Misogyny (2012)
Want to see a dinosaur torn apart? Then you’re in the right place.
Frustrated at the antics of the leader of the opposition at the time, Tony Abbott, Prime Minister at the time, Julia Gillard, decided that enough was enough for all that sexism and misogyny, and stood up in Parliament to tear Tony Abbott ‘a new one’. One of the most cutting, no holds barred, blistering attacks by one politician on another you’ll ever see, and delivered with perfect poise and control.
Best line? “if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
4. Sojourner Truth
Ain’t I a Woman? (1851)
Another speech for which we were denied the benefit of seeing it in action. To quote a review of the speech by an attendant on the day “It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience.”
And yet, you can still imagine the awesome impact of seeing this tall, gaunt, dark-skinned woman in a white turban take to the stage to deliver this powerful oration to the audience of the Women’s Convention in Ohio in 1851. In many ways, this was the forerunner of Hillary Clinton’s Women’s Rights speech.
Sojourner Truth (she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree) was an abolitionist an escaped former slave, who successfully sued her former ‘master’ for custody of her son. So, you can imagine with that history, what a powerful presence she had and why she had such an impact.
I love this speech for its directness and honesty in confronting its audience with the stark simplicity of its premise: that a woman is the equal of a man in every measure.
And that refrain using the technique of anaphora (or phrase repetition) “Ain’t I a woman?… Ain’t I a woman?” It is a plea, an accusation, and an affirmation all in one.
The speech only lasted about 3 minutes and then she finished with ‘old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say’.
I hope she dropped the mic on her way out! Oh YouTube! Wither weres’t thou when we needest thou?
Much as I love her, I’m not sure Kerry Washington was the right person to deliver this kind of speech, but she certainly gives it the right degree of attitude!
Best line? “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?”
3. Michelle Obama
Introducing the President at the National Democratic Convention (2012)
We all know about Barack Obama’s public speaking prowess, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that his wife, a high-powered lawyer in her own right, and his former supervisor, can give a pretty mean speech when the occasion demands.
The content and style of delivery are masterful as she straddles the delicate balance between being real and being political. No surprise then that her approval ratings have remained consistently high even whilst those of her husband have waned.
I wonder if she’s also thinking of doing the Hillary shuffle from First Lady to President.
Best line? “Being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”
2. Severn Suzuki
Speech to the UN Earth Summit in Rio (1992)
I defy you to watch this speech and not stop everything you’re doing until it has finished.
27 years before a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg wowed the world with her impassioned rhetoric on climate change, a 12-year-old girl stepped onto the world stage at the UN Earth Summit in Rio and made the world stop to listen.
A remarkable speech on many levels. Firstly, it’s content is powerful and filled with insightful observations about the perils facing the planet. Secondly, it is full of rhetorical flourishes that would make even the greatest speechmakers proud – listen out for her expert use of repetition ‘I’m only a child yet…’. Finally, the poise and control with which she delivers her speech are remarkable for one so young.
It’s the perfect mix of passion and logic to sustain a compelling case.
Most impressive of all is the way she holds a room full of jaded and seasoned political world representatives transfixed until her last word. And then I love the way they all applaud with fervour like they’re the school kids and not her.
Best line? “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it”
1. Elizabeth I
The Tilbury Speech (1588)
No actual video footage of this one unsurprisingly, but still one of the greatest speeches ever given, full stop.
Faced with an invading Spanish Armada from abroad, domestic challenges at home (she had just executed the challenger Mary Queen of Scots), and religious condemnation from the Vatican, who declared her an evil heretic, there was a lot riding on this speech. On top of it all, she really was a woman in a decidedly man’s world, taking on a traditionally male role, in front of an entirely male army. No pressure then!
It’s astonishing that you cannot find a full video version of this great speech online despite the many great actors that have played Elizabeth 1 including Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench. Here, at least, is an excerpt featuring another great, Cate Blanchett.
Read the full transcript here
Best line? “ 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 “
Is it the best of all the speeches by women? Maybe, maybe not. Over the centuries there have undoubtedly been a large number of great speeches by women, many of which are now lost in the annals of history. But it is my personal favourite and top of my list.
Simple. Short. Sharp. As all great speeches, including yours, should always be.
p.s. I help executives and entrepreneurs develop outstanding communication skills to take their careers to the next level. Reach out to chat when you are ready to work on your communication skills