Commencement Address

Cokie Roberts' Address to Wellesley's Graduating Class of 1994

It's very nice to be here. It seems so familiar; I froze the whole time I was here. Here I am again. It's also nice to be in a familiar place because Washington is getting less familiar with every passing day. It's getting harder and harder to explain what's going on there, and we're losing some of our most familiar characters who we used to be able to count on to have continuity.

When I'm in the Boston area, I can't help but think about Tip O'Neill, who, of course, was "Mr. Speaker" for so long, and a great and dear friend. I saw him about a week before he died, and he was at an event to raise money for a scholarship for a student, and he got up and told a story that I just love because he prefaced it by saying Mrs. O'Neill didn't like for him to tell this story. And I thought "Dear Lord, what could it possibly be? The idea of Tip O'Neill telling a risqué story was too tantalizing for words. It started, as so many do, with a man dying, going to heaven, getting to the gates. Saint Peter says, "My son, you have been a good and noble servant of the Lord. You may have any wish you want. What would you like it to be?" And he says, "I want to see the Blessed Mother; I have a question to ask her." Saint Peter says, "Done." So the guy goes in and he meets Mary and she says, "I understand you have a question, my son." And he said, "Yes. You know, over all those centuries, in all that art--every stained glass window, every statue, every painting--when you're holding the baby Jesus, you look sad. Why is that?" She says, "I wanted a girl."

I must say, it has not always been so familiar at Wellesley. My mother's words, that Diana read, were not her first words about Wellesley, I want you to know. When I came here, as a freshman, it was pouring. I'm the youngest child, and my mother and father, for reasons that still escape me, lo these many years later, decided to drive me to college; this was very unlike them. And we got here and were doing all the usual things, you know, opening the bank account, mama was sewing in name tags and all that stuff. And then, as they drove off and left me behind, drove off the campus in the pouring rain, my mother burst into tears, and said to my father, "We've left our baby in a Yankee, Protestant, Republican school." Every time we tease mom about it, she says, "Well, it's true."

I must say, that even thought it's cold, I'm glad to have a sunny graduation. It poured on my graduation here, too, and we were indoors, and our graduation speaker (this was the year 1964) was McGeorge Bundy. Now, I know that you all weren't born and all that, but he became rather famous and was someone that the Vietnam War was somewhat blamed on. And I think back on that peaceful graduation day, and how nobody thought about such a thing as protest or anything like that. If the poor man had shown up on campus a few years later, he probably would have been stoned.

But it was a different time, and I was thinking about some of the things that made it a different time. And of course one of the things, one of the facts for us as young women, was that the thought of war was not something that really had touched us--and we couldn't imagine it touching us. As the immediate years after that went by, it touched us vicariously through the men that we were involved with. Some of us have children as a result of that war, and we like them, we're very glad that they're there--but it did happen. But the idea that we might be involved, was something that never occurred to us, and really has never occurred to women until now. And the first time I was really struck by it was in listening to the Congressional debate on the Persian Gulf War.

It was a wonderful and studious debate. It was really Congress at it's best--one of those times when it's easy to explain, as opposed to the usual--and I was struck by the language, because people in the House and Senate kept talking about "our men and women in uniform, our men and women in Saudi Arabia, our men and women in the Gulf," and it was just remarkable. We had never heard that before, ever. I mean the dirty little secret is that women have been in our military since the Revolutionary War, but we've never talked about it openly before. And then it struck me that we really had never talked about "our men" either, it had always been "our boys"--"our boys in Vietnam, our boys in Korea, our boys in Europe," which led me to the quite wonderful observation that this was not the first time that a woman had turned a boy...into a man.

I am honored to be here, to be back, not only because it's a place I really care about enormously, but because you've had such a fabulous group of graduation speakers in recent years. I mean it's been sort of First Lady Central. I loved the year that you had Barbara Bush, and then she had the sense to bring along Raisa Gorbachev, who, of course, was noted for her philosophy degree. I mean that was it, right? And then Hillary Clinton, of course, recently, before she was First Lady. When I was here the only first lady that was ever around was Mei-ling Soong, and that was a sort of an interesting situation, but I won't dwell on that.

I did ask Mrs. Clinton about Wellesley, what she thought. I saw her not too long ago, and she said, "Well, things really haven't changed there a lot." She said, "They changed in the middle, but they're back again." And I took that to be an endorsement. I was shocked, though, by something she said a week ago today, about another first lady, about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And here's what Mrs. Clinton said, quote "The choices one makes have to be her own." I thought about that, and of course that's true: you do make all kinds of choices and they do have to be your own. But life presents a lot of choices that you don't expect as well. Jackie Kennedy didn't expect to be a widow at age 34. She then had to make choices about how she was going to live that life.

Today would have been my sister's 55th birthday. She loved the color purple. She would have loved to see the balloons around. She didn't choose to die at 51 of cancer, and I didn't choose to have an old age without her. But life presents you with choices that you then have to deal with and adapt to. My mother did not expect my father's plane to fall out of the sky but at age 58 made the choice to run for office herself, as a widow. So I think there are a lot of choices that are made for you, but there are then things that you do to choose to deal with them in various ways.

I noticed in a letter that I got, as a member of the community, from Diana concerning one of your many controversies. She said, "In an increasingly interdependent and multi-cultural world, we must find better ways to discover and rally round the common bonds that unite us amid our diversity. At Wellesley, we will continue to provide a learning experience that prepares women for the complexity of a changing world." --Choices that are thrust on you.

I got my class reunion book yesterday, the 1964 book. Thank God for it because I was not prepared for this speech; I was having to cram. I had thought that I would have plenty of time, and then I was sent off to do a story about the Citadel, about a young woman wanting to get into the Citadel. I tried to keep an open mind, thinking that as I talked to these young men, "Now, pretend they're women, pretend they're women, and put everything they say in that context." But that became really hard because they said things to me like, 'Well, we can't have girls around here, I mean, you know, what would happen when we get together in the morning and we all pull each other's pants down and stuff?" I swear to you, they said that. Whew! But it did throw me off my stride about having a chance to write a speech to you, and I got home and found that I had my class reunion book, and I was just struck by the choices that people at our age, 30 years out of here, feel that they are continuing to make and having to make, that it is all still sort of in front of them in a variety of ways.

Let me read you just a few selections here. This one is from a lawyer who is the mother of a 10 year-old--now that's a choice that's less open to us than it is to men, to have children at age 50. She says, "On October 1st, my employer from the last 14 years ceased to be an independent public company, and became a wholly owned subsidiary of another company, one that Jay [student commencement speaker at Wellesley today] wants to be Editor-in-Chief of, actually. The year leading up to this event was very exciting and busy for me as the company's sole inside lawyer; however, what this change will mean for me in terms of future professional challenge is still not entirely clear. So I'm beginning to think about what I will do when I grow up."

Here's another. This is a college professor. She has grown children, second marriage. "I'm somewhat unnerved by my present stage of life. I'm uncertain about my direction in my work and unsettled by the necessary changes in our family relationships as our kids become independent and we become ever more clearly the older generation. Still, even as I mull over my next steps, I count my many blessings, including a loving family, a happy marriage, and many, many pleasures. I've developed enough sense over the years to know that uncomfortable transitions are necessary for growth to happen. At 51, I guess I'm having growing pains again."

And then this one (this is another lawyer--this might say more about lawyers than life, I'm not sure): "My world is one of transition, both in attitude and in actuality. I feel as though I'm in the middle of one of those books, in which you can choose a number of possible twists to the plot and don't know the end until you get there. I'm still picking plots. I'm not sure I'll know the story line any time soon. Anyway, I plug along as a lawyer, continue to be fascinated with the development of women's issues, appreciate my friends and supporters more and more, and revel in the warmth of my wonderful family."

I think that this book is actually a fascinating book. It has stories for everyone. I mean Sally Jessy and Oprah could have a wonderful time with it. It does have the whole spectrum of American stories...and it is so interesting to me because we were not a very diverse group, and yet we have led somewhat diverse lives. A lot of people ask in the book, "Where is the wisdom of middle age?" A lot of them answer that question very profoundly. It's very clear that their lives have been touched, not only by the tragedies of normal life, the deaths of family members, the loss of people who were close to them and by the blessings of normal life. But they've also been touched by the particular tragedies of these times that we live in. You tend to think that only you are affected by these things but let me read from another classmate.

"I've been touched by AIDS. A fellow piano teacher spent two awful years trying to stay upbeat in the face of his approaching death. He and his faith were an inspiration to me, but it seemed like such a waste for him to die. I've also been touched by unprovoked violence: a good friend's husband was killed in the massacre at Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. She's now living on the edge financially. Another professional friend's oldest child, 39 years old with two children, 11 and 7, was killed last week in San Antonio by a couple of teenagers who ambushed him. My friend's willingness to forgive the murderers of her son is also an inspiration to me. She's taking great comfort that his organs have improved the lives of over 300 other people. Wouldn't it have been better if that good man could have lived out his full life? What can be done about the lack of care of our children, for the lives of others?"

And finally, another classmate, touched by the particular times in which we live. "My husband Ezio was assassinated in March 1985 by the Red Brigades, and two years later I was asked to enter politics. Why did I enter politics? At the time I was asked to run, I felt that what had been my life up to the moment of Estio's assassination had been destroyed, not by private rage and violence, but by a political act, and that the offer of the candidacy had placed me up against the choice of either trying to put my life back together on the level that I had lived it before the assassination or of becoming an actor in the sphere from which the destruction had come. I felt that the only choice I had was to try to combat destruction as I could on that level. Another factor which decided me in favor of the candidacy was the fact that I ran on a feminist ticket, and I thought and think that we need more women in politics."

Yes, Jay, yes indeed. We need more women in politics. You talked about Roslyn. The person I like to quote is an assemblywoman in Connecticut who is a plumber by trade, who said when she was talking about the importance of getting involved in public service, she said, "I figured I either had to stop complaining or run for office, and I knew I couldn't stop complaining." It's important of course to have women in politics for all of the reasons that you know about. It is something that I see constantly, the issues that they bring to the fore. But one of them--and this is the place where I think in the end you will have no choice--one of them is that they bring their role as caretakers to the world of politics.

And that is what I see as a theme running through my class book: that you will make that choice no matter what other choice you make, that you will be the caretakers in this society. It's what we do. That's what women do. We're the nurturers, we're the carriers of the culture. And whether you run for president or run the Patriot's Day race or become editor-in-chief of the New York Times (though you might want to talk to me before you do that), whether you do, as Hillary said, "make policy or bake cookies," (it's been my experience that one generally does both) that what you will still be doing, no matter whatever else you do, will be being the caretakers.

Ronald Reagan offended people when he said that women should be honored as civilizers. That statement was offensive because he said it to a group of professional women and defined them in terms of their relationship to men. He said they were civilizers of men. But he was right. We are. (I must say that men sometimes make it a little difficult, but that is what we do.) We can't avoid it. And, as I say, in politics, it is the women who are constantly bringing the civilizing issues to the forefront, the caretaking issues, the issues of concern to families and children.

Right now the focus in Congress, on the part of women, is on women's health and all of the myriad issues affecting women's health, from reproductive health, birth control, mammograms, all the way through breast cancer research, all of the things. That is primary concern to the women in Congress because if they don't do it, nobody else will. I had an experience a few years back where, what the women in Congress do is, you know, they sort of bring women's issues up like Chinese water torture and constantly drip them on the heads of their male companions until finally they get passed. A few years back there was this tremendous effort to get mammograms covered by Medicare, and it was getting very hard to do, and there were not enough women on the appropriate committees to have it in place every step of the way of the process, so one woman who was a lobbyist went to a male friend on a committee and said, "I need you to bring up this mammogram legislation." And he said, "Oh, I can't do that. I did the last bit of legislation for women in the subcommittee. Everybody will think I'm soft on women." And she said, "Nah, just tell 'em you're a breast man." He did. It worked!

But I have to tell you I don't just see this role of women as caretakers in the world that I cover, I see it in the world I live in. Slowly, slowly, slowly but definitely, the workplace is becoming a more humane place because of the presence of women. The idea that time can be taken for family, whether it's having children or caring for sick people or elderly people in your family. That is becoming more possible for the men in the work place as well as for the women in the work place because of the fights that we have fought over the last several decades.

But I also do see it in my personal life. Four years ago this time when my sister was dying, she was completely surrounded by a network of caretaking women--her mother, her sister, the nuns who had taught us, the nurses, women doctors, her hairdresser who would come and make her beautiful, and then circles of women around that. My daughter was in college at the time in Princeton. She was taking care of my sister; the women in her class were taking care of her. The women in my profession were spelling each other on vacations so that somebody would always be there for me--these are busy, journalistic women. The women in Congress were doing the same thing for my mother, supporting her and caretaking her because that was what they understood they needed to do for each other and for her--was to say "Yes" under those circumstances.

What I would say is that it is impossible to shake the caretaker role even if you wanted to, and I will revert just briefly once again to my class book to one hysterical line from a friend saying, "George's parents are still in good health and maintain active lives. We think it's remarkable that his 81 year old father and 78 year old mother look after George's 100 year old grandmother, who still lives alone in her Wisconsin farmhouse. May we all do as well." So you can't shake it, but I don't know why you would want to.

Life is long. You have many opportunities ahead of you. You have so many more opportunities than so many people. You are privileged and blessed. And you will have the opportunity to say "Yes" to many different things, but you also will have the opportunity in the saying of "Yes" to say "No" sometimes, to say "No, it's not right for me, and my family, right now, to take this great job offer." And you know what? Another one will come along. I'm living proof of that. You can do it all. There are times when you have to not do it all at once. There are times when you don't sleep. But you can do it if you have some sense about saying, "This is what's right now, this is where I am now, and this is the care I need to take right now." I think that it is important to look at the long view as you go out of here and realize that there's a long time ahead, and there is time to see it all, to do it all, and to do it in ways that make you proud and happy in the end.

One last reading from a friend: "I've been thinking lately about the changing size of my world, interior and exterior. Our generation grew up with rosy expectations about the economy, about the invincibility of our country, about the boundless possibilities for our lives. Yes, there were much more limited opportunities for women, and nearly unfathomable dangers, such as the threat of nuclear annihilation. But I think most of us felt a personal optimism which our children do not. What they see is a shrinking job market, AIDS, drugs, crime, homelessness, thinning ozone, and more and more cynicism about the possibility of fundamental change. We came of age in a time of hope, of Camelot, when anything seemed possible--and they're growing up in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-decade of greed, crisis of faith.

"Now, as many corporate giants downsize, I find myself doing the same. The medium-sized theater company I worked for in the '80's failed, and I'm now working for a smaller one. With one child gone and one back only temporarily from college, my live-in family has shrunk. As my husband considers retirement, we face a smaller income. As hormone changes take their toll, I find myself with less energy. Through my fifty-year-old eyes, even the print has grown smaller.

"One of my happiest moments came, though, when I finally discovered, late in my forties, that I didn't have to accomplish something huge in order to succeed. Corollaries of this discovery were that I didn't have to save the world, publish the great American novel, or be Superwoman all the time; however, I could launch a scholarship fund for a deceased Wellesley friend, become a pretty good theater marketing director, and learn to be a more compassionate family member and friend."

The long view: when we were living in Greece, we used to go to this beach at Marathon--just think of it.... And there was a little museum there, a little tiny museum from well before the Battle of Marathon that you've studied, with artifacts from 7000 years ago. And you looked in these cases, and there were buttons, there were frying pans, there were mirrors, there was jewelry--and it was remarkable to look at. You could open them and put on--you could put it on and use it right away! It was totally recognizable to the lives of women today. For men, what was in those cases? Well, there were some bows and arrows, and there were some articles of worship, so if you were a soldier or a priest there was something. But if you just went about leading your daily lives, there wasn't something terribly recognizable for you. That's what we have: we have this wonderful, wonderful continuum.

So I say to you, young women of Wellesley, open up those cases. Take up the tools and put on the jewels--of your foremothers and sisters. Go out into this world and take good care of it. Thank you.

Related

1994 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

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