A “maiden speech” is the first speech that an elected official makes in front of a legislature.
The term is most commonly used in the UK and in Commonwealth countries, but it is also sometimes used in the United States and referred to as an inaugural speech.
Origin of “Maiden Speech”
In the US, newly-elected senators traditionally waited for a few weeks or longer before delivering their maiden speech on the Senate floor.
The rationale was that new senators should demonstrate their humility; in return, senior senators should respect their restraint. This tradition of restraint has disappeared, although the tradition of paying special attention to a legislator’s first, or maiden, speech remains.
The maiden speech is an opportunity for a legislator to make a bit of a splash and show a national audience precisely who he or she is.
One of the most famous maiden speeches in American history is the speech which Richard Nixon gave after being elected to the House of Representatives. Nixon used the speech to denounce Gerbert Eisler, an alleged anti-American spy who, in Nixon’s words, was “a seasoned agent of the Communist International, who had been shuttling back and forth between Moscow and the United States from as early as 1933, to direct and master mind the political and espionage activities of the Communist Party in the United States.”
Nixon spent most of the speech describing the particulars of Eisler’s situation. But he also called, more broadly, for the federal government to crack down on communist sympathizers. He concluded:
I think that every Member of the House is in substantial agreement with the Attorney General in his recent statements on the necessity of rooting out Communist sympathizers from our American institutions. By the same token I believe that we must all agree that now is the time for action as well as words.
Over a decade later, Senator Ted Kennedy used his own maiden speech to call for civil rights legislation.
Kennedy began his speech rather self-consciously, explaining that he had hesitated over whether he had the right to speak as such a new member of Congress.
He was also aware that he was occupying his brother’s former seat in the Senate:
Mr. President, it is with some hesitation that I rise to speak on the pending legislation before the Senate: A freshman Senator should be seen, not heard; should learn, and not teach. This is especially true when the Senate is engaged in a truly momentous debate. in which we have seen displayed the most profound skills of the ablest Senators, in both parties, on both sides of the issue.
Kennedy described himself as being forced into speech by circumstances – he could not remain silent, he said, on an issue as important as this one:
I had planned, about this time in the session, to make my maiden speech in the Senate on issues affecting industry and employment in my home State. I still hope to discuss these questions at some later date.
But I could not follow this debate for the last 4 weeks—I could not see this issue envelop the emotions and the conscience of the Nation—without changing my mind.
To limit myself to local issues in the face of this great national question, would be to demean the seat in which I sit, which has been occupied by some of the most distinguished champions of the cause of freedom.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.