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Commencement Address to the Wellesley College Class of 1992 by Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69
President Keohane, trustees, faculty, students, parents, friends, and, most of all, honored graduates of the Class of 1992.
This is my second chance to speak from this podium. The first was 23 years ago, when I was a graduating senior. My classmates selected me to address them as the first Wellesley student ever to speak at a commencement.
I can't claim that 1969 speech as my own; it reflected the hopes, values, and aspirations of the women in my graduating class. It was full of the uncompromising language you only write when you are 21. But it's uncanny the degree to which those same hopes, values, and aspirations have shaped my adulthood.
We passionately rejected the notion of limitations on our abilities to make the world a better place. We saw a gap between our expectations and realities, and we were inspired, in large part by our Wellesley education, to bridge that gap. On behalf of the class of 1969, I said, "The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible." That is still the challenge of politics, especially in today's far more cynical climate.
The aspiration I referred to then was "the struggle for an integrated life... in an atmosphere of... trust and respect." What I meant by that was a life that combines personal fulfillment in love and work with fulfilling responsibility to the larger community. A life that balances family, work, and service throughout life. It's not a static concept, but a constant journey.
When the ceremonies and hoopla of my graduation were over, I commenced my adult life by heading straight for Lake Waban. Now, as you know, swimming in the lake, other than at the beach, is not allowed. But it was one of my favorite rules to break. I stripped down to my swimsuit, took off my Coke-bottle glasses, laid them carefully on top of my clothes and waded in off Tupelo Point.
While I was happily paddling around, feeling relieved I had survived the day, a security guard came by on his rounds, picked up my clothes from the shore and carried them off. He also took my glasses. Blind as a bat, I had to feel my way back to my room at Davis.
I'm just glad that picture hasn't also come back to haunt me. You can imagine the captions: "Girl offers vision to classmates and then loses her own." Or, the tabloids might have run something like: "Girl swimming, blinded by aliens after seeing Elvis."
While medical technology has allowed me to replace those glasses with contact lenses, I hope my vision today is clearer for another reason: the clarifying perspective of experience. The opportunity to share that experience with you today is a privilege and a kind of homecoming.
Wellesley nurtured, challenged, and guided me; it instilled in me, not just knowledge, but a reserve of sustaining values. I also made friends who are still among my closest friends today.
When I arrived as a freshman in 1965 from my "Ozzie and Harriet" suburb of Chicago, both the College and the country were going through a period of rapid, sometimes tumultuous changes. My classmates and I felt challenged and, in turn, challenged the College from the moment we arrived. Nothing was taken for granted. Our Vil Juniors despaired of us green-beanied '69ers because we couldn't even agree on an appropriate, politically correct cheer. To this day when we attend reunions, you can hear us cry: "1-9-6-9 Wellesley Rah, one more year, still no cheer."
There often seemed little to cheer about. We grew up in a decade dominated by dreams and disillusionments. Dreams of the civil rights movement, of the Peace Corps, of the space program. Disillusionments starting with President Kennedy's assassination, accelerated by the divisive war in Vietnam, and the deadly mixture of poverty, racism, and despair that burst into flames in the hearts of some cities and which is still burning today. A decade when speeches like "I Have a Dream" were followed by songs like The Day the Music Died.
I was here on campus when Martin Luther King was murdered. My friends and I put on black armbands and went into Boston to march in anger and pain—feeling as many of you did after the acquittals in the Rodney King case.
Much has changed—and much of it for the better—but much has also stayed the same, or at least not changed as fast or as irrevocably as we had hoped.
Each new generation takes us into new territory. But while change is certain, progress is not. Change is a law of nature; progress is the challenge for both a life and society. Describing an integrated life is easier than achieving one.
Yet, what better place to speak on integrating the strands of women's lives than Wellesley, a college that not only vindicates the proposition that there is still an essential place for an all-women's college, but which defines its mission as seeking "to educate women who will make a difference in the world."
And what better time to speak than in the spring of 1992, when women's concerns are so much in the news, as real women—and even fictional television characters—seek to strike the balances in their lives that are right for them.
I've traveled all over America, talking and listening to women who are: struggling to raise their children and somehow make ends meet; battling against the persistent discrimination that still limits their opportunities for pay and promotion; bumping up against the glass ceiling; watching their insurance premiums increase; coping with inadequate or nonexistent child support payments; existing on shrinking welfare payments with no available jobs in sight; anguishing over the prospect that abortions will be criminalized again.
We also talk about our shared values as women and mothers, about our common desire to educate our children, to be sure they receive the health care they need, to protect them from the escalating violence in our streets. We worry about our children—something mothers do particularly well.
Women who pack lunch for their kids, or take the early bus to work, or stay out late at the PTA, or spend every spare minute taking care of aging parents don't need lectures from Washington about values. We don't need to hear about an idealized world that never was as righteous or carefree as some would like to think. We need understanding and a helping hand to solve our own problems. We're doing the best we can to find the right balance in our lives.
For me, the elements of that balance are family, work, and service.
First, your personal relationships. When all is said and done, it is the people in your life, the friendships you form and the commitments you maintain, that give shape to your life. Your friends and your neighbors, the people at work or church, all those who touch your daily lives. And if you choose, a marriage filled with love and respect. When I stood here before, I could never have predicted—much less believed—that I would fall in love with Bill Clinton and follow my heart to Arkansas. But I'm very glad I had the courage to make that choice.
Second, your work. For some of you, that may overlap with your contribution to the community. For some of you, the future might not include work outside the home (and I don't mean involuntary unemployment); but most of you will at some point in your life work for pay, maybe in jobs that used to be off-limits for women. You may choose to be a corporate executive or a rocket scientist, you may choose to run for public office, you may choose to stay home and raise your children—you can now make any or all of these choices for the work of your life.
Third, your service. As students, we debated passionately what responsibility each individual has for the larger society and just what the College's Latin motto—"Not to be ministered unto, but to minister"—actually meant. The most eloquent explanation I have found of what I believe now and what I argued then is from Vaclav Havel, the playwright and first freely-elected president of Czechoslovakia. In a letter from prison to his wife, Olga, he wrote:
Everything meaningful in life is distinguished by a certain transcendence of individual human existence—beyond the limits of mere “self-care”—toward other people, toward society, toward the world.... Only by looking outward, by caring for things that, in terms of pure survival, you needn't bother with at all... and by throwing yourself over and over again into the tumult of the world, with the intention of making your voice count—only thus will you really become a person.
I first recognized what I cared most about while I was in law school where I worked with children at the Yale New Haven Hospital and Child Study Center and represented children through legal services. And where during my first summer I worked for the Children's Defense Fund. My experiences gave voice to deep feelings about what children deserved from their families and government. I discovered that I wanted my voice to count for children.
Some of you may have already had such a life-shaping experience; for many, it lies ahead. Recognize it and nurture it when it occurs.
Because my concern is making children count, I hope you will indulge me as I tell you why. The American Dream is an intergenerational compact. Or, as someone once said, one generation is supposed to leave the key under the mat for the next. We repay our parents for their love in the love we give our children—and we repay our society for the opportunities we are given by expanding the opportunities granted others. That's the way it's supposed to work. You know too well that it is not. Too many of our children are being impoverished financially, socially, and spiritually. The shrinking of their futures ultimately diminishes us all. Whether you end up having children of your own or not, I hope each of you will recognize the need for a sensible national family policy that reverses the neglect of our children.
If you have children, you will owe the highest duty to them and will confront your biggest challenges as parents. If, like me at your age, you now know little (and maybe care less) about the mysteries of good parenting, I can promise you there is nothing like on-the-job-training.
I remember one very long night when my daughter, Chelsea, was about four weeks old and crying inconsolably. Nothing from the courses in my political science major seemed to help. Finally, I said, "Chelsea, you've never been a baby before and I've never been a mother before, we're going to have to help each other get through this together." So far, we have. For Bill and me, she has been the great joy of our life. Watching her grow and flourish has given greater urgency to the task of helping all children.
There are many ways of helping children. You can do it through your own personal lives by being dedicated, loving parents. You can do it in medicine or music, social work or education, business or government service, by making policy or making cookies.
It is a false choice to tell women—or men for that matter—that we must choose between caring for ourselves and our own families or caring for the larger family of humanity. In their recent Pastoral Letter, "Putting Children and Families First," the National Conference of Catholic Bishops captured this essential interplay of private and public roles: "No government can love a child and no policy can substitute for a family's care," the Bishops wrote, but "government can either support or undermine families.... There has been an unfortunate, unnecessary, and unreal polarization in discussions of how best to help families.... The undeniable fact is that our children's future is shaped both by the values of their parents and the policies of our nation."
As my husband says, "Family values alone won't feed a hungry child. And material security cannot provide a moral compass. We need both."
Forty-five years ago, the biggest threat to our country came from the other side of the Iron Curtain; from the nuclear weapons that could wipe out the entire planet. While you were here at Wellesley, that threat ended.
Today, our greatest national threat comes not from some external Evil Empire, but from our own internal Indifferent Empire that tolerates splintered families, unparented children, embattled schools, and pervasive poverty, racism, and violence.
Not for one more year can our country think of children as some asterisk on our national agenda. How we treat our children should be front and center of our national agenda, or it won't matter what else is on that agenda.
My plea is that you not only nurture the values that will determine the choices you make in your personal lives, but also insist on policies with those values to nurture our nation's children.
"But, really, Hillary," some of you may be saying to yourselves, "I've got to pay off my student loans. I can't even find a good job, let alone someone to love. How am I going to worry about the world? Our generation has fewer dreams, fewer illusions than yours."
And I hear you. As women today, you face tough choices. You know the rules are basically as follows:
- If you don't get married, you're abnormal.
- If you get married but don't have children, you're a selfish yuppie.
- If you get married and have children, but work outside the home, you're a bad mother.
- If you get married and have children, but stay home, you've wasted your education.
- And if you don't get married, but have children and work outside the home as a fictional newscaster, then you're in trouble with Dan Quayle.
So you see, if you listen to all the people who make these rules, you might just conclude that the safest course of action is just to take your diploma and crawl under your bed. But let me propose an alternative.
Hold onto your dreams. Take up the challenge of forging an identity that transcends yourself. Transcend yourself and you will find yourself. Care about something you needn't bother with at all. Throw yourself into the world and make your voice count.
Whether you make your voice count for children or for another cause, enjoy your life's journey. There is no dress rehearsal for life, and you will have to ad lib your way through each scene. The only way to prepare is to do what you have done: Get the best possible education; continue to learn from literature, scripture and history, to understand the human experience as best you can so that you have guideposts charting the terrain toward whatever decisions are right for you.
I want you to remember this day and remember how much more you have in common with each other than with the people who are trying to divide you. And I want you to stand together then as you stand together now; beautiful, brave, invincible.
Congratulations. Look forward to the challenges ahead.