Two decades ago this August, a young blonde woman, petite and pretty, took the stage at the Houston Astrodome during the Republican Convention. Her 13-minute primetime speech shocked not just those at the convention but also those in the television audience. To many ears, "The Whisper of AIDS," as the speech became known, chastised the GOP's negligence in addressing the growing AIDS epidemic. Mary Fisher not only changed the face of the disease but the course of it. By educating her audience and focusing attention on the illness and those who suffered from it, she brought compassion as well as research money to the cause.
Fisher was a surprising choice for convention speaker. True, she was from a prominent Republican family and a staff member in the Ford White House. But she was a woman in a political party that was largely made up of men. Her subject was also an uncharacteristic and unexpected one. People like her didn't get AIDS; people like those attending the Republican didn't talk about it. She not only discussed her own illness, but she also talked about all the others who from the disease. As she said in her speech that evening: "I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family's rejection."
No one expected that night that Mary Fisher would still be living 20 years later or that her speech would continue to be influential. It is included in Words of the Century: The top 100 American Speeches 1900-1999 along side Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." The divorced mother of two healthy sons living in Sedona, Arizona, Fisher continues her work as an advocate as well as an author and artist.
Three decades ago this year, Carol Gilligan, a psychologist at Harvard, wrote the landmark book In A Different Voice outlining her study of how moral reasoning develops in boys and girls. From her findings, Gilligan concluded men make public-oriented decisions on the basis of individual rights and fair play while women makes decisions based on private-oriented ideas of responsibility and caring for others. Simply put, a man makes an ethical decision on how it affects him while a woman considers how her decision affects others. Even more simply put: Self-interest vs. community interest. Something to think about given the small number of women in politics these days, not to mention the even fewer who have speaking roles at the conventions.
Tonight at the storm-delayed Republican convention, only four women will take the podium. (Ten female speakers are on the Democratic schedule this September.) These Republican women are diverse beyond gender. One is a Black woman who was the first female African-American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. One is an Indian-American who is the first female governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. One is a Hispanic American who is the first female Hispanic governor of New Mexico, Susan Martinez. The last, and perhaps most influential -- at least on this occasion -- is a white stay-at-home mother. She is also the wife of the presumed presidential nominee for President this year: Ann Romney
Don't be put off by a little nepotism. Mary Fisher only got the chance to speak because her father, Max Fisher, was the campaign manager of the Bush-Quayle ticket that year. Regardless of her connections to the one percent, Ms. Fisher has always seen her role as speaking out for those too poor, weak or powerless to have their voices heard, especially women of color. No matter how women get the opportunity to speak, their inclusion changes without question the conversation. More importantly, their voices have the power to shift the paradigm, as Fisher's did. Never have the times or recent events called more for the connecting voices of women and their community of problem-sharers and problem-solvers. That's why we need to have these and more women take the stage at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. We need to hear their particular views of the country and the world. And we need them to help us decide who is (still) the best man for the job for the highest office in the land in 2012.