Public speaking is a challenging task, marked by the tension and fear that something might go wrong. People who can grab public attention and make the audience identify with them are viewed as powerful leaders. Public speaking is usually associated with politics and social affairs and has been a predominantly men's territory ever since ancient times. Women account for a relatively small proportion of public speakers but some of them have been a major influence in society.
One of the most notable women public speakers in United States history was Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), whose career as a spokesperson spanned for over 50 years, from the second half of the 19th to the early years of the 20th. Anthony was an extremely inspirational public speaker and a women's rights activist. She provided many women with an opportunity to speak their mind in public by organizing various conventions. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting but her trial presented her with the chance to present her ideas to a wider audience. By the time of her release, she had gained popularity in Europe. In the 1880s, she started an international suffrage movement.
Another influential personality in the American women's rights movement was Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), who became popular as the first woman to promote herself as a candidate for president. She used both speeches and articles as a means of introducing her ideas to the public on topics such as suffrage, sexual freedom, marriage reform, spiritualism, international justice and economic reform. Woodhull was ridiculed by the people whose support she aimed to attract because of her extreme views. Despite her critics, she was considered to be one of the most significant public speakers in the US women's right movements.
Sojourner Truths (1797-1883) also devoted much of her efforts to promote gender equality but she was a fervent abolitionist as well. Born Isabella Baumfree, she was a freed slave. Although she could not read or write, her speeches were transcribed and her skills at speaking convincingly were described by witnesses. Truths spoke in the simple language of the uneducated but used remarkable metaphors that could inspire and motivate, in addition to her wit and sarcasm, which turned her into a heroine for women, African-Americans and all liberally minded citizens.
Women gained equal rights in 1893 when Colorado became the first state to adopt an amendment granting women the right to vote. It was followed by other states up until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was signed into law by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. A number of women at this time ventured into politics, including Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), who had a successful career as a Senator from Maine. She was the first woman to be elected to both US House of Representatives and the Senate. Her most famous speech, known as Declaration of Conscience, was a reaction against the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, who started the Communist persecution in 1950. Chase Smith expressed her concerns that the basic principles of Americanism were being compromised. The press and the public reacted favorably to her speech, although Chase Smith was criticized by Republicans. She remained in Senate for 24 years.
A contemporary of Senator Smith, the former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) also played an important role in social and political life in the United States. She was an advocate of the United Nations, a civil rights supporter and a promoter of labor rights for women. Mrs Roosevelt was just as famous as her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Political commentators argue that the reason why she was such an effective speaker was that she portrayed herself as an ordinary woman who fulfilled her responsibility as an American citizen.
There are many international public speakers worth mentioning not only for being powerful orators and an inspiration for women all over the world but also for their influence in world politics. Former prime minister of Israel Golda Meir (1898-1978), ex-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) are among women widely acclaimed for their public speaking skills whose legacy still remains. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (b.1925) was known for her public speaking, including her famous quote in 1980 in response to critics of her government's economic policy, when she said defiantly: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!"