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Finding the Voice of Snow White -- In Search of the Greatest Speech by a Woman

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As the sun sets on the Twilight saga (although it is a movie about vampires, so it could be undead), a friend of mine and I discussed watching another Kristen Stewart film, Snow White and the Huntsman. I had seen it on the big screen, but wanted to see it again because something in it had been bothering me.

A few weeks ago, St. Crispin's Day -- October 25 for you non-celebrants -- gave me a clue. As I and my Shakespeare geek buddies passed around the famous Crispin's Day speech in Henry V (you know it, even if you think you don't: "... we few, we happy few, we band of brothers ..." See?), I vaguely remembered Snow White's call to arms, which basically consisted of some mumbling, culminating in shouting 'brother.'

Where was her Crispin's Day Speech? This was a stellar opportunity to deliver some soaring oratory flowing from a powerful female character. Even an Aragorn in LOTR: Return of the King speech would do... but no.

A lot of women take exception to the Snow White story for more traditional feminist reasons of old = bad/ugly vs. young = good/beauty. I had reflected on this interpretation with the year's other Snow White iteration in "Why Are Older Women Always the Witches?"

But I saw something different in Snow White and the Huntsman, which is I think the real reason this particular fairy tale is resonating right now.

This Snow White, to me, was about overcoming the old perceptions of what fueled female power -- beauty, revenge, repression, manipulation -- and moving toward a new paradigm for female leadership that stems from a purer origin of the feminine spirit: taming wild beasts, in conversation with Mother Nature and a cognizance of the seen and unseen, and an ability to wear the pants (under a skirt, of course ...but which can be torn off, as needed).

Snow White's Rallying Cry?

At the end of SW&H, as Snow White ascends her throne, there is a feeling of pent breath. She looks like she is about to speak. To usher in a new era with a dazzling vision for the future. I was waiting to exhale and be inspired by her electrifying speech about a new kind of leadership.

She never said a word. I'm still holding my breath.

Was the lack of oratory a choice by the filmmakers? At one point, I thought they had cut Kristen Stewart's lines because they didn't like her or something, but given the subsequent snogfest brouhaha with K-Stew and her director, obviously that hypothesis wasn't true.

So, I was left with this: Maybe men don't know how to write soaring women's speeches. Maybe they have no idea what they would say. And maybe women don't either.

Where are the Great Speeches by Women?
A previous article on the White House Project prompted me to see if they address female speech-making. Kirsten Henning, VP for Communications & Strategy, responded promptly:

"Our trainings now focus on four key leadership modules...: Personal Branding through Strategic Storytelling; Negotiation, Power, and Navigating the Landscape; Managing Mentors and Sponsors; and Leadership in Action. Public speaking is woven into our curriculum. Historically we have been known for training women solely to run for office, and this year we evolved our mission to include cross-sector leadership."

I turned to Toastmasters International because an acquaintance told me she found joining the group incredibly empowering as far as finding her own voice, and using it. They confirmed that "the current membership consists of 52% women and 48% men," which reflects similar percentages in the population and the workplace. So there is a cognizance that this skill needs to be honed.

But where are the women's speech versions of "I have a dream?" Or "think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" or "we have nothing to fear but fear itself?" The memorable, quotable, burned-into-the-collective-consciousness kind of speeches, perfectly illustrated in Spielberg's Lincoln, when soldiers repeat back to the president the words of the now famous Gettysburg address. Where are those?

When a colleague of mine reminded me that in the film Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher is given voice lessons to be perceived as a strong leader, I turned Robyn Hatcher, a communication skills expert whose workshop I had taken at NYWIFT, for insight. Women tend "to overstate issues," she's observed, because they are more accustomed to not being heard; they tend to speak to specifics rather than finding the commonality, "they don't dig deeply enough to find the beauty of the message."

They do in some other areas. Such as song. Alanis Morrissette had a recent article in the Daily Beast addressing a tangential issue. Daily Beast also had a roundup of speeches in this last campaign... all men.

I poked around further and found a woman who was experiencing similar frustrations:

"...women speakers are rare. There are exceptions... like Susan B. Anthony... but they are few and far between, and their lives are made more difficult for bucking the trend. I'd love to bring you a speech by Florence Nightingale, but there aren't any I can find; like her contemporaries, she believed public speaking to be improper for a woman.

The other stumbling block: Few records of women's speeches are available, whether in written, audio or video formats. In a few precious cases, dedicated historians and librarians make some speeches by women available, although these archives and women's studies research are losing funding..."

She and some other websites list "famous" speeches by women; I'd heard of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a woman?" speech, but precious little else.

With women finally gaining ground in boardrooms and a historically unprecedented 20 female senators recently elected, women need to know how to speak, and to make the kinds of speeches that make history. Or, as Tom Stoppard says in his play The Real Thing, "which children will speak for you when you're dead."

November 17 marks the day Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne in 1588. Yes, the first major leader of the Early Modern era was a woman. A harbinger that's been struggling to harb. And she was a powerhouse.

Queen Elizabeth was the leader when Shakespeare wrote the indelible Crispin's Day Speech. It was an era when rhetoric and linguistic proficiency and words words words were valued, prized, exalted and exulted in. He also wrote some famous women's speeches, such as "The quality of mercy is not strained..." and "O yet, for god's sake, go not to these wars..."; Queen Elizabeth herself said in her "famous" Tilbury speech: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king..."

These speeches could form a foundation for women's leadership speeches. They could have informed Snow White's words. Because we need elevated language to cut through the constant whirr and buzz of bilge.

I have a dream; I have a dream about soaring women's speeches, and it starts like this: We are the beating heart of humanity, but we know that a heart needs a head to function, and a body. We don't seek to separate or segregate or divide, but to give birth to a new reality whose power lies in integrity -- like a rich tapestry made of a legion of colors (7+billion, actually), each one needed to enrich it's beauty and keep it from unraveling...

...you take it from there.

Snow White hasn't found her voice yet. The greatest speech by a woman has yet to be heard.

Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's StyleGoesStrong.com.