“We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” -Malala Yousafzai
Women need to speak up and speak out, if we want to claim a space of our own. To inspire you to do just that, here are the 11 most famous speeches by women that changed our world for the better. Let these words give you courage to say NO and mean it; no to cultural practices that differentiate, rituals that demonstrate prejudice, policies that leave you out, and the power to say no to people who think your no comes with an unspoken “try harder”. Remember silence is deemed approval.
Suggested read: 10 words we use to describe women and why we should kick them to the curb
1. Elizabeth I, ‘Speech to the Troops at Tilbury’ (1588)
“I know 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, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
Up until then, battleground speeches where a ‘man’s affair’, but this speech of Elizabeth I changed everything. England’s Queen, donning a plumed helmet and a white velvet gown, clutched a silver baton and gave the speech that made it clear that the Goddess of War, Athena, was reborn!
2. Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ (1851)
“I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?”
Born Isabelle Baumfree, Sojourner didn’t just call herself Truth, but also spoke it fearlessly. An African-American abolitionist, this woman’s rights activist, was born in New York into slavery, and then sold with a flock of sheep for a 100 dollars. Challenging her reality, Truth went on to become the first black woman to win a case against a white man.
3. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Freedom or Death’ (1913)
“We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.”
This speech was given by Emily Pankhurst in November 1913, five months after Emily Davison, a fellow suffragette jumped in front of King George V’s horse, and bore fatal injuries. Pankhurst was far from home, but her aim was crystal clear when she declared,
“So here I am… I come in the intervals of prison appearance. I come after having been four times imprisoned under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, probably going back to be rearrested as soon as I set my foot on British soil. I come to ask you to help to win this fight.”
4. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ (1928)
“My belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…”
Think of a feminist manifesto, and “A Room Of One’s Own” will jump right out. Even in 2017 (which is almost a century after she actually spoke these words), this speech will inspire you to your bones. Based on a chain of lectures that Virginia Woolf delivered at Newnham College and Girton College of the University of Cambridge, this speech strikes at the core of patriarchal emotions. It hits so hard when it says how financial independence and access to education are necessary for women to achieve freedom, social, ideological and creative. She says,
“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Suggested read: The power of NO: NO is the weapon all women need
5. Gloria Steinem, ‘Address to the Women of America’ (1971)
“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy, visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups, and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen, or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
In an address to the Women of America (which went on to inspire women of the world), Gloria Steinem delivered what came to be regarded as one of the most haunting speeches of the second-wave feminist era. This speech became so powerful because it not only targeted sexism, but also inter-sectional concerns such as racism and class.
6. Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘Freedom From Fear’ (1990)
“Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’ – grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.”
Inspiring millions through her political activism despite her captivity, Myanmar’s “Woman of Destiny” received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, following which she gave this speech for her acceptance address. In this, she appeals people to tap into the spirituality of human nature, which she says is brave, compassionate and full of faith.
7. Maya Angelou, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)
“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
The second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration (Robert Frost was the first), Maya Angelou spoke of change, inclusion and responsibility. Since that morning of 1993, this poem has been dubbed as Angelou’s “autobiographical poem.”
8. Hillary Clinton, ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’ (1995)
“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS. These five words spoken by Hillary Clinton at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women formed the watershed moment of the women’s rights movement. In her speech, she went on to say,
“As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace around the world – as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled and subjected to violence in and out of their homes – the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.”
9. Nora Ephron, ‘Commencement Address To Wellesley Class Of 1996’ (1996)
“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
Considered the ultimate “how to” guide for girls, this speech given by Ephron at her old college, highlights how far women around the world have come. She says,
“If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey with $500 in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic.”
Full of wit, humor, beauty and insight, there is no doubt as to why this speech made it to this list of famous speeches by women. In the address, Ephron urged women to be the heroine of their lives and not the victim, and that’s my message to everyone who is reading this.
Suggested read: In support of International Women’s Day: Here’s why we still need it
10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists, 2013
“Because I am a female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Marriage can be… a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”
This speaks for itself, and if you have not watched it yet, you are missing out on something ESSENTIAL.
That’s all we have on this list of famous speeches by women. If your favorite speech did not make it to this list, do mention them in the comments.