There are, and have been, great orators who happen to be women; Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Jordan, Hillary Clinton, to name a few. But male orators, past and present, far outnumber the women. Historian Philip Gavin’s Great Speeches Collection lists sixty-five speeches – three were given by women. University of Texas at Tyler Communications Professor Michael Eidenmuller’s list of the 100 greatest speeches has a better ratio than Gavin’s, but still just twenty-one were delivered by women.
Poll your friends and you will likely find what I did. Out of thirty-seven “great speakers” named by a dozen friends, two were women. Even most of the women named all men.
Under “Orator” in Wikipedia you will find that “the leading Roman families often sent their sons” to study under Greek masters. Why not their daughters? The great Greek philosophers – Aristotle, Socrates, Plato – were all of the male persuasion. This predilection for testosterone over estrogen continued for hundreds of years. Betty Rizzo, author of “Male Oratory and Female Prate” wrote, “Throughout the eighteenth century, while male rhetoric was almost universally, perhaps unprecedentedly, valued and studied, women’s silence was almost universally commended, recommended, and virtually enforced.”
The recognition of women orators lags that of racial minorities. The inspirational leaders of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King fed off a Black religious tradition of several centuries. Max Atkinson, author of “Our Master’s Voices,” says there were no such obvious models for females leading into the women’s movement.”
The lack of women orators also boils down to the standard obstacles: familiarity, custom, preference for a deep voice, and sexism. You can’t dismiss the fact that most of the lists of great speeches were made by men.
Bill Grimes is a communication professional with more than thirty years of experience, the last eighteen of which have been at ZMF. His expertise as a communication consultant is built upon more than fifteen years as a broadcast journalist. Bill is frequently invited to speak about persuasive communication, media training and media crisis management.