According to Hollywood insiders, tonight at the Oscars British drama The King's Speech is odds on favorite to take home the statuette for best picture. The film follows the struggle of King George VI of Britain to overcome his stuttering after his surprise ascension to the throne. Heartwarming stuff, but a subject that raises an important contemporary (and business related) point for University of Cambridge professor Mary Beard.
The classics scholar used the film's success as a launching point for an inquiry into the history of oratory in British newspaper the Guardian yesterday, covering the lessons of great orators of the classical world like Demosthenes and how they are still applied by the likes of President Obama today. But she also points out an obvious but rarely commented upon fact -- nearly all the people we think of as great public speakers are men. She writes:
There is something problematic about the very notion of "great oratory". For a start, it is an almost entirely male category. I doubt that there have been many, if any, "great" female orators, at least as "great oratory" has traditionally been defined. Margaret Thatcher may have delivered some memorable soundbites to the party faithful ("The lady's not for turning"), but she did not give great persuasive speeches. In fact, when a few years ago the Guardian published its own collection of great oratory of the 20th century, it obviously had a problem with the female examples....
I'm not meaning by this that women have in some way "failed" to master the art of public speaking. Not at all. The point is that "great oratory" is a category that has been consistently defined to exclude them -â€" and the more you search for the roots of our own oratorical traditions in the classical past, the more obvious that exclusion becomes. In ancient Greece and Rome the ability to speak in public and to persuade your fellow (male) citizens was almost as much a defining attribute of the male of the species as a penis was. Men spoke, women kept quiet â€" that's what made them women. "Great oratory" even now has not shaken off its male, "willy-waving" origins. We are not even sure, I suspect, what a great woman's speech would sound like. Thatcher tried to get round the problem by lowering her voice an octave, but she ended up sounding more like a woman pretending to be a man.Could it possibly be true that women are at such a disadvantage in traditional public speaking even in the contemporary corporate world (and politics)? A quick mental survey of celebrated speakers today turns up presentation master Steve Jobs and President Obama, but no women noted for their forceful speaking style come quickly to mind (though there are plenty of interesting TED talks by women they tend, like most TED talks, to run to the self-deprecating and informative rather than the classically authoritative.)
Google turns up a whole blog dedicated to public speaking by women -- The Eloquent Woman suggests Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt as models of female public speaking excellence, but it's worth noting that both speeches cited were in the traditional female sphere of concern for the downtrodden even if they were on weighty public matters.
Can you think of other women hailed as "great orators?" And, if not, should we be concerned that women are at a disadvantage or celebrate a broader range of speaking styles?
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