Friday, March 9, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Evita Peron's 1951 Renunciamiento

(Editor's note: For Women's History Month, our Famous Speech Fridays will focus on historic famous speeches by women. Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this one.)

Eva Duarte de Perón's most famous speech wasn't made on a balcony, despite what you might have learned on Broadway. It's true that the former first lady of Argentina did have her dramatic moments speaking high above the crowds, but it was a few minutes on the radio in 1951 that mark Evita's most memorable words.

Perón's remarkably full life has been dissected, retold and revised since her 1952 death from ovarian cancer. In each telling, some new side of Perón appears: She was a feminist, an earthly saint, a ruthless boss, a Nazi sympathizer, an embezzler, a canny politician, and possibly the first chemotherapy patient in Argentina. But before all that, she was an actor, and it was her mastery of performance that makes all these other roles so intriguing today.

"Even as a little girl I wanted to recite," Perón wrote in her autobiography, The Reason for My Life. "It was as though I wished to say something to others, something important which I felt in my deepest heart." She acted in plays and recited poetry at public events before moving to Buenos Aires at age 15 to work in radio and movies. On screen, she was considered too wooden to be a success. But the radio turned her into a star. She acted in several radio soap operas and a popular series portraying great women in history--her turn as the last Tsarina of Russia was a fan favorite.

Eva Perón was also a commanding speaker throughout her husband Juan Perón's presidency, and never more so than in August 1951, when she appeared with him at a giant union rally called Cabildo Abierto. Eva could always energize a crowd, but her speech that day came with an unexpected echo. The two million people gathered underneath the soaring scaffolding pleaded with her to announce her candidacy for the vice presidency. She tried to refuse, then begged for more time to consider the decision as the crowd shouted "Con Evita" ("With Evita!") and "Ahora, Evita, ahora!" ("Now, Evita, now!")

Nine days later, Eva gave her answer in the radio address known as the "Renunciamiento" (Renunciation). With a faltering, almost broken voice, she declines "irrevocably" the honor of the vice presidency, and hints that her time as the country's chief Peronista is near its end.

Maybe it's hard to imagine making a balcony speech before millions, or serving as the voice of a nation. But here are a few lessons from the quiet yet dramatic Renunciamiento that can work for any speaker:
  • Stick to your strength. Perón's speeches were famous for their passionate declarations of devotion to Argentina's working class, the descamisados. To many in her audience, her emotional language made her sound more like a mother or a saintly sister than a politician. Her trademark style remains intact for this speech, where she begins by saying the Renunciamiento comes from "a dialogue between my heart and the people."
  • Emphasize a point with repetition. How many different ways can Perón say no? Historians believe it was a combination of factors that led her to abandon her candidacy, from pressure by the military and her husband to her failing health. Regardless of the reasons, she made it clear that the decision not to run was "irrevocable" and "definitive," and that she was "unwavering" in a "final" choice made with "free will."
  • Don't forget to pause. There's all kinds of reasons to pause in a speech, like giving yourself time to take a breath or building in a space for audience participation. Perón increased her pauses in the last third of the Renunciamiento in a way that lends drama to her final points: She will not give up the cause of the descamisados, and her greatest honor is to be known as their Evita.
You can listen to the full radio address here, and watch part of the rally in the video below; we've started it just before the crowd starts calling for Evita. What do you think of this historic voice?

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.