An effective speech is a carefully crafted act of rhetoric. The most artless speechless are quite often those that in reality are the most studied in their preparation. We can ourselves come to understand the reasons underlying the effectiveness -- or lack of efficacy - of a speech by studying its structure through careful rhetorical analysis. That is the purpose of this paper, to provide just such an analysis of Hillary Rodham Clinton' speech, "Women's Rights are Human Rights."
Clinton's speech can be seen as belonging to a line of similar speeches in American history, include speeches urging women's enfranchisement given by Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. She relies heavily on the idea of enfranchisement, which lies at the heart of democracy - so much so that we tend to use the word as synonymous with empowerment.
We hear in Clinton's summoning of the women of the world together an clear echo of another such speech made in 1851 by Sojourner Truth:
That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages, lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it -- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? And when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?
Clinton explicitly links her purpose in speaking at the conference to those who struggled for the franchise:
In my country, we recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage. It took 150 years after the signing of our Declaration of Independence for women to win the right to vote.
It took 72 years of organized struggle on the part of many courageous women and men. It was one of America's most divisive philosophical wars. But it was also a bloodless war. Suffrage was achieved without a shot being fired.
Part of an effective analysis of any speech is an understanding of the speaker, so we begin with a brief autobiographical sketch of Hillary Clinton, who was born Hillary Diane Rodham to Dorothy and Hugh Rodham on October 26, 1947. She shared her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois, with two brothers and was an athlete, a churchgoer, a member of the National Honor Society, and a student leader.
After attending Wellesley as an undergraduate, Ms. Clinton entered Yale Law School in 1969. There she interned with children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman and met Bill Clinton. She would marry Clinton in 1975 and their daughter, Chelsea, would be born five years later.
The speech to be analyzed in this paper was made as a part of her duties as the nation's First Lady:
As the nation's First Lady, Hillary continued to balance public service with private life. Her active role began in 1993 when the President asked her to chair the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. She continued to be a leading advocate for expanding health insurance coverage, ensuring children are properly immunized, and raising public awareness of health issues. She wrote a weekly newspaper column entitled "Talking It Over," which focused on her experiences as First Lady and her observations of women, children, and families she has met around the world. Her 1996 book It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us was a best seller, and she received a Grammy Award for her recording of it.
As First Lady, her public involvement with many activities sometimes led to controversy. Undeterred by critics, Hillary won many admirers for her staunch support for women around the world and her commitment to children's issues.
She now uses her rhetorical talents as the first Lady ever to be elected to the United States Senate and the first woman elected statewide in New York.
Purpose of the Speech and Intended Audience
The purpose of the speech was to raise awareness of the needs and rights of women in the governments across the world. Women's rights, she argued, are human rights, and as such must never again be trivialized by those who would equate what men need with human rights and thus effectively erase women from the species.
A secondary purpose of the speech - although really this was as important as the first - was to ask women both at the conference and at home to become more aware of the ways in which their gender connected them across the divides of religion, ethnicity, generation, race and nationality.
Part of the power of this speech lies in the fact that its purpose it to champion such important causes.
Clinton was speaking on one level to those actually at the conference - those who had assembled there because they already believed in the importance of fighting for civil rights for girls and women.
By gathering in Beijing, we are focusing world attention on issues that matter most in the lives of women and their families: access to education, health care, jobs and credit, the chance to enjoy basic legal and human rights and participate fully in the political life of their countries.
But she was speaking also - and perhaps even primarily - to the world at large, many of whom discounted the importance of an international women's gathering. She makes clear that much of her intended audience is absent through the grammar of her speech:
There are some who question the reason for this conference.
Let them listen to the voices of women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
There are some who wonder whether the lives of women and girls matter to economic and political progress around the globe.
Let them look at the women gathered here and at Huairou -- the homemakers, nurses, teachers, lawyers, policymakers, and women who run their own businesses.
Clinton asked of her audience that they give her their support and by doing so acknowledge the connections that can be forged among women. The audience for this speech was an integral part of the speech as a rhetorical act because its diversity provide an undeniable level of support to what Clinton was saying. She argued that women could come together, and there before her they had done just this.
The persona that Clinton used for this speech was a complex one. This reflects both the fact that she personally combines a number of roles in her own life and that fact that she wished to speak as inclusively as possible to and for all of the women in the world.
She first establishes the fact that she understands from personal experience the complex roles that women have to uphold:
Over the past 25 years, I have worked persistently on issues relating to women, children and families. Over the past two-and-a-half years, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women in my own country and around the world.
Then she expands the persona that she is using first to encompass all Americans (for whom she stood as the First Lady) and then for women in the rest of the world:
As an American, I want to speak up for women in my own country -- women who are raising children on the minimum wage, women who can't afford health care or child care, women whose lives are threatened by violence, including violence in their own homes.
I want to speak up for mothers who are fighting for good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean air and clean airwaves; for older women, some of them widows, who have raised their families and now find that their skills and life experiences are not valued in the workplace; for women who are working all night as nurses, hotel clerks, and fast food cooks so that they can be at home during the day with their kids; and for women everywhere who simply don't have time to do everything they are called upon to do each day.
The overall tone of this speech is evangelical: Clinton does not want for those in her audience simply to listen to her - she wants them to rise up and change the world. This is the speech of a general to her troops - meant to inspire them and help them overcome their fear.
I believe that, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.
These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women…