President's Address

President Nannerl Overholser Keohane's Charge to the Class of 1990

It is often said that no one remembers commencements very clearly -- too much is going on, and paradoxically, your heightened state of consciousness means that everything blurs into one vivid image, and you have a hard time in later years recalling the details. I do not think that this will be true for the Class of 1990. This is a world-class Commencement, in every way, which you will share with readers of papers and viewers of televisions literally around the earth. And "Commencement" for you will always mean, not just the day itself, but all the discussions, the publicity, the bewildering degree of national attention.

All of us have spent a good deal of time recently pondering this circumstance. Your choice of a Commencement speaker, and the petition protesting that choice, struck a chord, a nerve, with the world outside. I use the word "outside" advisedly. Normally I reject the notion that Wellesley is some kind of ivory tower, shut off from the "real world", since all of us on campus are so much a part of the economy, society and polity of the rest of the world --and what happens at Wellesley is as real as anything can be.

But in this case, one of the interesting lessons of all this unprecedented visibility is that we on this campus make some assumptions as part of our daily lives which are not shared by most people in the world outside.

We assume, for example, that everyone -- including students -- can and should make their voices heard in expressing dissent as well as support for majority or mainstream views. We think of this as the stuff of academic freedom, and more basically, as a mundane familiar right we all have in this country. We believe that dissenting ideas should be expressed with civility, with openness, with respect for other people even when you disagree -- and that people should listen to such ideas, with similar respect.

Yet Wellesley students have been called all kinds of unsavory names by people across the country for speaking their minds, even in what began as an internal discussion of our commencement speaker.

A sixth-grade class from Jacksonville, Florida wrote to tell me that the Wellesley students must be very dumb to express such views, and must not have learned anything at all at our fancy college, and adjured me "not to give us any of this First Amendment stuff," which they rightly anticipated I might cite in your defense. I found this rather chilling, I must tell you.

One lesson we all learned from your Commencement is that the right to express your views, which we all take for granted as our bread and butter, is not universally admitted to be a "good thing," even in a country which prides itself on being free.

And the first part of my charge to you, therefore, is this: hold fast to your belief in the importance of free speech, even and especially in expressing dissenting and unpopular ideas. This is a lesson you as Wellesley women showed throughout this spring that you have learned supremely well -- not only those of you who signed the petitions, but equally important, those of you who staunchly defended your classmates' right to speak out for their beliefs, even when you disagreed.

Another lesson of the spring was that there is still a great deal of uncertainty out there about how we as women should live our lives. On the Wellesley campus, serious discussion of women's choices is the order of the day: we all ponder, as students, faculty members, staff, the challenges that face women -- and men -- who are attempting to combine the various elements of a good life. We are so familiar with these elements of a good life. We are so familiar with these issues, and with their complexities, that comes as a surprise to see how little thought most people have given to such knotty questions.

And as the press accounts moved from the early rather superficial reporting of the "Wellesley flap" to more serious consideration of these fundamental issues, we have had a splendid opportunity to help focus conversation about the choices that we make these days, in dual-career couples, with ambitions for parenting and professional success and doing good works, and uncertainty about how we can make all these good things come together in one life. All of you who have met with the press have spoken with confidence and caring about these issues, and demonstrated what it means to be part of a community where such topics are regularly and seriously discussed.

The world outside doesn't spend enough serious time thinking about these things. In this way, you have done a service to millions of other women and men who are wrestling with these issues, by providing a "bully pulpit" for the discussion of the most fundamental aspects of our lives.

Why should the choices for young women at age thirty who want to combine career and marriage be so much tougher than they are for equally talented and ambitious men? As Gloria Steinem put it at Wellesley's Commencement in 1988, "Why should 'having it all, for women inevitably mean doing it all,?"

These are the crucial questions raised by our Commencement controversy of 1990: not questions about disrespect to the First Lady, which was never in the minds of any Wellesley woman, nor underestimating the value of motherhood and volunteering and nurturing, which we profess as part of our college creed of service. Instead, the questions are about whether society will allow young women to become whole persons, expressing our talents and ambitions and dreams individually, exploring, ranging widely, forming relationships, defining ourselves, rather than being defined by stereotypes of gender or race or class.

And finally, another lesson of this spring was that society is indeed changing, even if slowly. One point that many of the thoughtful participants in our discussion made was that the options for women have indeed become more diverse since the 1940s, when Barbara Pierce left Smith to marry George Bush and start a family. Today, a young women in the class of 1990 might make the same decision, for the same reasons. But she would also have doors open to her which were closed to Mrs. Bush and her classmates -- doors to professional training, to corporate management, to the halls of government, to dangerous service in demanding posts around the world.

The fact that women have more options today, and more support from their families and friends in choosing among them, is cause for optimism, but not for complacency. These options are available because women and men have worked for them, have fought for them. They are a legacy to you of the Class of 1990 from many strong people in the past, who fought hard against discrimination, ignorance, humiliation and despair to create such opportunities. You must not simply enjoy them and take them for granted. You must use them wisely, you must build upon them, you must continue to broaden the choices available to all women -- and all men -- as you make your own lives after Wellesley.

Fortunately, something appears to happen at Wellesley that spurs our graduates to follow paths such as the one I have just sketched out. One of your predecessors of the Class of 1986, Bernice Harleston, was recently a Young Alumna Trustee. Her life after Wellesley has already taken her, in four years, to many interesting places: to Kenya, for research and service; to Wall Street, for a taste of corporate life as a financial analyst; and now to law school at Howard University.

Bernice wrote a thoughtful letter to Wellesley in response to our commencement controversy, in which she compiled a list of "what Wellesley taught me," and it looks like this: "Tolerate differences; define success broadly; accept change -- and influence change; be bold, courageous and compassionate."

I hope that when you look back on Wellesley in four years or in forty, you will have roughly the same sense of what our College gave to you.

Wellesley women of the Class of 1990: Armed with such precepts, go out and make the world a better place for the women and the men who will follow you. Live in it wisely and well, for yourselves and for others. And remember that the affectionate support and loyalty of our college is with you, today and always.

Related

1990 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

Read the full citations.