If you take a casual, unscientific Google Search for the “greatest speakers of all time,” a small scrollable window appears.
In it are the faces of fifty known greats —Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill. Almost all, save a meager seven, are men.
Too often, women are seen as somehow less competent at public speaking, that their voices are just missing something, just a shade away from greatness. It is a situation exemplified time and again by my own experiences; my freshman year, during one of my first-ever debate tournaments, a judge voted against me because my high-pitched voice made her “want to poke [her] eye out with a fork.” Another, in lieu of commenting on my speaking skills at all, informed me that my dress shirt matched my skin color.
Incident by incident, I came to realize the intensity of the double standard — not merely for women in debate, but for women in leadership. I came to feel with a horrible acuteness the reality of the glass ceiling; in church, I listened to religious teachers lecture on the danger of female pastors. When I chose to object, I was pulled aside after class.
“Look, I know you’re smart, but you will never be a leader. God did not intend for women to be leaders.”
“Why not?” I asked, fighting back fury. I began to rattle off counterexamples.
“Right,” he admitted. “But that’s only because sometimes there’s a shortage of men.”
On my way home that day, I sat in the passenger seat, my knees curled up to my chin, and cried.
Little wonder, I thought, that there has never yet been a female president, and that women are only a small minority of Congressional representatives and Fortune 500 executives. How many girls had been convinced to turn away from leadership, taught to see themselves as incompetent speakers and unworthy leaders? How many girls labored tirelessly for projects, only to meet criticism for their appearance rather than their work? At every step along the way, every presentation, every speech, society tears women down.
And so, at the recent DNC, which for the first time nominated a woman for the presidency, I saw the fringes of a system that had for so long invisibly bound me. But I saw its edges begin to fray.
One such moment, surprisingly, was Bill Clinton’s “first spouse” speech. Consider, for instance, his opening lines:
In the spring of 1971, I met a girl. The first time I saw her, we were, appropriately enough, in a class on political and civil rights. She had thick blond hair, big glasses. Wore no makeup. And she exuded this strength of self-possession I found magnetic.
The description here, of Hillary Clinton, jumped out at me as soon as he uttered the words: “in a class.” “Big glasses.” “No makeup.”
These are the very qualities that women are typically shamed for. These are the very qualities that I was once ashamed of: being nerdy and always in a class, wearing glasses since I was eight years old, having mediocre makeup skills that countless YouTube tutorials could never solve.
And yet, in the speech, these qualities are seen as a source of “strength.” They are “magnetic.” For the first time, the double standard for women to appear effortlessly beautiful, glasses-free and a picture of perfection, crumbles to reveal strength in the empowered female academic, the empowered female leader.
In many ways, the recent Democratic Convention was profoundly inspirational. There were countless examples of empowered women, from the mothers of shooting victims to female Representatives, from Michelle Obama to actresses Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Banks, America Ferrera and Lena Dunham. At the center of it all, however, was the first woman to be within an arm’s reach of the presidency: Hillary Clinton.
And Hillary’s complex politics aside (truly, let me reemphasize: This. Is. Not. About. The. Politics.), let us celebrate this moment. Her achievement is symbolic of women’s struggle — and victory — over everyday microaggressions. At last there comes a female leader who has not been torn down because her speeches are "not quite as great" as her husband's, because women are not intended for leadership or too emotional to make judgements; because her body is not the picture of ageless, idealized youth. Her own electrifying speech on Thursday night could not have phrased it better: “when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky's the limit.”
Because, by the way, Hillary is one of the seven women to make the list of greatest speakers. However, even in her own words, this accomplishment is not a cause for complacency; it is a cause to keep fighting, fighting until “every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have.”
So, Hillary, thank you. You have helped to open a realm of possibility to a new generation of women.
Lead Image Credit: WOCinTech Chat via Flickr Creative Commons