Commencement Address

Gloria Steinem's Commencement Address to the Class of '93

I don't know about you, but I am incurably sentimental about commencements.

For one thing, they are a time when hopes are set free with so much future before us that hopes can be infinite.

For another, all the diverse parts of this community are together -- not just for the last time, but perhaps for the only time. I thank them all for letting me share it:

President Nan Keohane, whose leadership will be so missed in the future -- and yet whose impact on her new university, so appropriately called Duke, we can hardly wait to see;

Skilled administrators and wise trustees -- plus their friends, family, and significant others;

Faculty with tenure, faculty without tenure -- including international women's studies Professor Jennifer Schirmer, whose student support has filled my mail box;

Parents and families of graduates, step-parents and chosen families of graduates -- and everyone else who gave moral support and help to pay the bills;

Lovers of graduates -- you know who you are.

Staff who fed, cleaned, housed, typed, and supported this class into being -- including setting up this ceremony;

Past graduates, future graduates, never-going-to-be graduates, and anyone else who, like me, is here because they're addicted to the poignancy of graduations;

And most important, each and every member of the unique class of 1993.

Davis Scholars who proved once again that women are the one group who grows more radical with age, and traditional students who are non-traditional in everything but age, -students who hung out at Schneider Center or C.E. House, at memorial rock, Harambee House, or The Hoop; -those who went to Hillary's Inaugural party and those who didn't, and yes, even those who voted for George Bush; -those who thought the Nation of Islam text should be taught, those who didn't. and those who weren't sure;-those who thought Wellesley chose them by mistake, and those who always knew they should be at Wellesley; -students from Mezcla and the Asian Association, from the welfare rolls and the Blue Book, who took courses at MIT or Spelman, who qualified for athletic teams or championships for sitting still and reading -- in other words, to everyone in this class which represents the glorious and growing diversity of Wellesley, I say: You are a great motive for me -- and for all of us here to live a very long life. If we're really programmed to live up to 130 years, as geneticists now say, you inspire me to try. I want to see what you do in the world, for you're going to accomplish so much more than we did. After all, you're smarter, younger,

Even in your very first year on this campus, I remember reading some of you quoted in the national press. You were already having to defend your views on the great Barbara Bush controversy. 'Would the husband of Margaret Thatcher be invited to Oxford?" "Would Harvard's commencement speaker be Mr. Sandra Day O'Connor?"

In your sophomore year, the Berlin Wall came down, Russian citizens thought about voting choice for the first time in history, and the power blocs of the world shifted in a way that outdated every textbook; yet some internal walls still wouldn't come down. A chaplain could be a woman, for instance a great step forward from my day, when not only God but all his representatives were supposed to look like the ruling class -- but for some, a chaplain still couldn't be a lesbian.

By the next year, Rodney King and the Los Angeles rebellion had become a flashpoint for all who were powerless or empathized with the powerless; the long suppressed ethnic tensions of eastern Europe erupted; and we had gone to war against the Middle Eastern dictator we had helped to create. As if in a faint echo of world tensions, biased graffiti appeared here, too. But in this community, there were speakouts, teach-ins, peaceful demonstrations, and empathetic efforts to cross barriers. Take those skills with you. The world needs them.

And then suddenly in your senior year, with the stroke of an election, this country's hopes have been raised. The spirit of twelve Reagan/Bush years were characterized by one newspaper cartoonist this way: Reagan, in a Western hat, saying, "A gun in every holster, a pregnant woman in every home, make America a man again." The spirit of the Clinton years has thus far been characterized -even if also cartoonized -- by a more equal partnership between a man and a woman than this country has ever seen at the top -- or much of anywhere. And of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of your own. First, a co-president; then, a President. Who knows, perhaps that first President will be one of you.

Yet at the same time, the world has been forced to recognize rape as a war crime by the rape camps of Bosnia, and a doctor in Florida was murdered for offering poor women reproductive freedom.

It's hard to imagine any class that has experienced more world-transforming events while getting a degree. To your credit, you have taken on many of these events on campus instead of retreating into an "Ivory Tower." I know from talking with you that you have learned that conflicts make you strong, and diversity multiplies everyone's learning.

But no commencement speaker can resist giving advice -- certainly, I can't. There are so many things I wish I had known on the day of my own commencement into independent life. Here are a few, on the off chance that they're helpful:

First, I wish I had known that an education is not a thing one gets but a lifelong process. It took me twenty years to recover from my own college years, for it took me that long to realize how incomplete they had been. Fortunately, more of your courses have looked at the world as if women mattered -- and thus you are far more likely to know that you matter.

But I look at, say, your President's name Nannerl, and I wonder: How many of us know about Mozart's older sister, whose name was also Nannerl, and whom Mozart said was the really talented one.

Or I think of the ground underneath our feet right now, and I wonder how many of us study the sophisticated Native American cultures that once flourished here and throughout this continuity; some with councils of grandmothers who chose the leaders and made decisions of war and peace; some with democratic forms to which our Constitution owes more than it does to ancient Greece.

I wonder how many of us were taught that slavery was the forced importation of unskilled labor, when it was also a brain drain, with a conscious effort to steal experts in, say, the cultivation of rice.

And sometimes, I wonder if we can uproot the spirals of violence in this country at all, unless we admit and study their origins in the very settling of our country, in the ideas of "masculinity" and "femininity" that have imprinted our ideas of what human beings can be.

Just as violence and abuse in one person's childhood repeats itself until its truth is admitted and healed, so I sometimes wonder if violence and abuse in the beginning of a country's life must be truly admitted and studied before it can be healed. And I wonder why we don't study the clear correlation between child rearing methods and forms of government; between routine physical abuse of children and growing up to believe one must be either the victim or the victimizer-there's no other choice. Perhaps we should have a motto "The only form of one's control is how we raise our children." Those are just a few thoughts to tantalize you into a continuing education.

Second, I wish I had better understood the importance of process itself. Process is all.

For instance the ends don't justify the means. The means are the ends. Unless the means we use reflect the values we hope to achieve, we can never achieve them. For instance, no one can give us power. If we aren't part of the process of taking it, we won't be strong enough to use it. For instance, a person who has experienced something is always more expert in it than the experts. For instance, the Golden Rule, written by and for men, needs reversal to be valuable to many women. Yes, it's important to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. But for us women the challenge is to treat ourselves as well as we treat others.. After all, who wants a Golden Rule administered by masochist?

And finally, I wish I'd known the life-giving importance of support from other women. You've learned that in these years at Wellesley. Some of you have told me that you fear its loss. Well, refuse to lose it. Wherever you go, make sure that you have a small group of women with whom you meet often and regularly; women with whom you can share support, jokes, values, dreams, and activism to advance those values and dreams.

I hope men here realize this is not exclusionary; that we join together with men, too. But women, whatever our race or class, our sexuality or ethnicity, are the one subordinate group that doesn't have a country. Indeed, we will never have a country, which is good; for it makes us anti nationalistic and subversive. But we also don't have a neighborhood. Most of us don't even have a bar. Many of us are treated unequally, even within our own loved families.

So until we have a truly equal world, we will need to come together in small groups to form psychic countries and alternate families of women. As long as we are spending some part our lives in a woman-hating culture, we will need a woman-loving group to counter it; just as racism requires a racial pride to counter its bias.

It is only such support that lets us know we are not crazy, the system is crazy; that keeps us from feeling aberrant, self-blaming, alone; that keeps us from internalizing the values that de-value us.

With such regular, built-in, small groups, personal/political support, there is no end to the dreams we can nurture.

Since there can be no revolution without poetry -- as Emma Goldman said music and dancing -- I'll leave you with my favorite poem by Marge Piercy. It explains why one twig can be broken, but a bundle of twigs cannot; why you must learn from the support of these college years to seek out supportive women, where ever you are.

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on -one at a time,
It starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

And remember: if your dreams weren't already real within us, you could not even dream them.

Related

1993 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

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