Women’s Room: Why does Vital Speeches still publish so many men?

The question I get asked most as editor of Vital Speeches is, “Where do you find all the speeches?”

Which I always take as a polite way of asking, “How do you get to decide?”

Of all the tens of thousands of speeches delivered in the world every month, how do we choose 10 to appear in the next issue of Vital Speeches?

My inquisitors seem disappointed and surprised to hear that some months, we have a hard time coming up with 10 that we’re truly proud to publish.

To understand that, you need to read our criteria, established upon the magazine’s founding, in 1934:

“The publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day believes that it is indeed vital to the welfare of the nation that that important, constructive addresses by recognized leaders in both the public and private sectors be permanently recorded and disseminated — both to ensure that readers gain a sound knowledge of public questions and to provide models of excellence in contemporary oratory.”

We could perhaps amend that now to include some unrecognized leaders, and also to emphasize our interest in the welfare of the whole world.

But we’re not of a mind to do so. We think 85-year-old mission statements should smell a little musty. (Or, as we might have spelled it back in the day, “mouldy.”)

We are, however, fiercely determined to ensure that Vital Speeches itself remains, on our watch, worthy of its name.

That’s why we paid attention to a LinkedIn column about Vital Speeches, by a friend of the magazine. Dana Rubin, a veteran speechwriter, a convener of a venerable speechwriter’s roundtable in New York and a judge of our Cicero Speechwriting Awards, noticed that in our December issue there appeared not one speech out of the 10 that was delivered by a woman.

Rubin, whose own speechwriting firm is dedicated to “helping women thought leaders build reputations and boost the bottom line,” wrote a LinkedIn column calling for more women’s voices in the magazine, and asking her readers to submit timely women’s speeches to the magazine.

I publicly thanked her, writing:

“Of course we regularly publish women’s speeches in Vital Speeches — the December issue was a rare exception — but we always seek more, and since men still dominate top institutional jobs, they still overpopulate the podium. So sometimes we have to go a bit further out of our way to find great women’s speeches, and I welcome everyone’s help in nominating them. If anyone has questions about the types of speeches we are looking for, I’m happy to discuss.”

In a personal email to Rubin, I noted that a quick review of the last six months shows that we published two women out of our usual total of 10 monthly speeches in our July issue, four in our August commencement issue, three in September, three in October and two in November.

I added that “Vital Speeches is much more descriptive than prescriptive — and still trending in that direction, as I believe the magazine’s greater function is as a time capsule of what is being said by the political and institutional leaders of our time on the issues of our day. You know those people are still overwhelmingly, and outrageously, men.”

Of course, Vital Speeches has never actually been as objective as it aims as it claims — just as few people are as rational as they fancy themselves. Nor have the editors been omniscient. For instance, a keyword search of Vital Speeches archives (which can be done at most local libraries) reveals not a single speech by Martin Luther King. Oooooooooops!

Did the editors, through their horn-rimmed glasses, see King’s ideas as too radical? Or were there too just many important policy speeches by the presidents of banks and steel companies the month King hollered somewhat repetitively about his “dream,” at some picnic in Washington.

It’s too late to ask the long-dead men who edited Vital Speeches back then. Just as it will be too late to ask long-dead me, six decades from now, why there were still so many speeches by men in the era of #leanin and #metoo. Scholars will have to speculate.

In case they find this article:

We do publish mostly speeches by institutional leaders, and we always will, because what they say on the public record — whatever they say on the public record — is inherently important to recognize now, and to read from the future.

If we published a lot of TED Talks, library lectures and eloquent wedding toasts, we could easily be publishing as many women as men. (In that scenario, it’s also doubtful that Betsy DeVos would have already appeared four times in the magazine.)

But because we would all like to see better speeches by women (and men) in the pages of Vital Speeches, perhaps I should simply answer the original question: “Where do you find all the speeches?”

Answer: We get some submitted directly to our website from the people who delivered them or the speechwriters who wrote them. We get others from publicists, and from colleagues and friends who know we’re always looking for speeches. And we probably get most by reading vast results from a number of Google News searches for timely speech transcripts.

And after sifting and sorting and agonizing and sometimes debating and second-guessing, we come up with about 10.

And by our cocktail-napkin analysis we wind up with an average of more than two-thirds men. Better than the nearly 100 percent men who appeared in our pages 85 years ago. But not where we’d like to be.

So you know how to help: When you see an important speech by a woman that’s been delivered in the last month or two and fits the criteria for Vital Speeches, email me the full text or transcript ASAP: editor@vsotd.com.

I’ll receive it gratefully, read it eagerly and if it is worthy, publish it proudly.

Groping toward equality (and equity) with you.