Oprah was named The Hollywood Reporter’s first Empowerment in Entertainment award recipient, and she delivered a powerhouse speech that brought the house down. This is why it was so impactful.
You could hear a pin drop.
That’s not exactly noteworthy, when it comes to Oprah. You can always hear a pin drop when she’s around. But during her speech at The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment gala, you could really hear a pin drop. In just a few short minutes, as Oprah talked about her very personal and powerful experience of the film industry’s wage gap, the audience of mostly women were riveted in their seats.
“Because I was a single woman and I didn’t have a mortgage and I didn’t have kids, I was not entitled to earn the same kind of money as the man sitting next to me,” Oprah recalled in her speech. “And I realised in that moment that my employers didn’t get it. They did not understand my value.”
“But you know what? I did.”
Oprah went on to recount an experience she had when her television show first became a national series. She received a pay rise, but none of the producers – incidentally, all women – did. Oprah marched into her boss’ office and asked for her employees to receive a pay rise.
“Why do they need more money?” her male boss replied. “They’re a bunch of girls.”
So Oprah took her own pay rise and, out of it, gave each of her producers a $10,000 bonus. “My idea of being creative was to have [the money] rolled up in toilet paper rolls at the dinner as gifts, because I couldn’t get management to pay them,” Oprah mused, in The Hollywood Reporter’s accompanying interview.
The next year, Oprah went back into the office and asked, again, for her boss to give everyone more money. Only this time, she said this: “Either they’re gonna get raises, or I’m gonna sit down. I’m not gonna work if they don’t get paid more. Babe.”
At the podium, recalling this moment, Oprah paused. “You know it takes a while to develop a voice, but once you have it, you damn better use it on stuff that matters,” she said.
“I might have been too intimidated to speak if I was alone,” Oprah added. “But here’s the thing. You’re never alone. You’re never alone. The sovereign sound of Maya Angelou’s voice was pushing me forward that day, whispering ‘I come as one but I stand as 10,000.’”
In her powerful pause, with every woman’s face staring back at hers, Oprah delivered her most crucial words of wisdom: that when you’re advocating for change, you are never alone. (This, incidentally, is the exact moment when I started crying on the bus to work while watching this video.) Oprah named Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Rosa Parks, Joan Baez, Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Walters as some of the women whose “spirit” she draws on every day when she’s fighting to have her voice heard.
“And I’m pretty sure that I even heard Shirley Chisholm [the first black woman elected to the US Congress] urging me on,” Oprah said “with this thought: ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’”
Thank you, Oprah and Chisholm, for always bringing your folding chairs so that the women who came after you don’t have to.