Commencement Address

1999 Commencement Address by Lynn Sherr ’63

President Walsh, fellow Trustees, amazing faculty and staff, beaming parents and stepparents (or any relative generous enough to pay for all this)... and wonderful Class of 1999.

Good morning. Good graduation. Good heavens—what have you done to our Tower?

I celebrate your accomplishments and I thank you for inviting me to share this magical day. And I stand here fully aware that—except for that pile of degrees—I am the only thing standing between you and lunch. Trust me, I like lunch.

Not that there's anything wrong with degrees. Especially when you've worked as hard as I know you have. You are living proof of the story I like to tell about the man in the hospital. The doctor told him, "Sir, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is, you need a new brain. The good news is, I've got two available." The man was devastated—a new brain? "Tell me," he finally said, "what are the two?"

"Well," said the doctor, "I've got a male brain, which will cost you $20,000, and a female brain, which will cost $10,000. You choose."

The man was baffled. "Why is the female brain so much cheaper?" he asked.

"Easy," answered the doctor. "It's been used."

I know exactly how much all of you use your brains because in fact, this is my third Wellesley commencement.

My first was in 1963, when I sat out there where you are... excited, scared, chomping at the bit (and wearing something yellow under my gown). My job that day was to listen, and our speaker was the editor of a major newspaper and thus a potential employer. But I am sorry to report that I have absolutely no recollection of what if anything he told us. Zero. Either I wasn't listening, or he wasn't telling, both of which reflect the rather dreary set of expectations for women at the time.

My second Wellesley commencement was in 1990. Then, in my role as a television reporter, I stood over there—broadcasting live the graduation speech of First Lady Barbara Bush. I had Peter Jennings in one ear, Barbara Bush (and Raisa Gorbachev) in the other, and some millions of TV viewers watching Wellesley instead of a soap opera. On the one hand, I fully appreciated the moment, and felt immensely proud to be reporting on and representing my school. On the other, I couldn't help thinking, "Wait—I have something to tell the students!"

So now I take my place up here—eager to welcome you into the wide, wide world... but even more determined to remind you that taking your place there is not only a right, it is a privilege, a precious gift with a long and heroic heritage.

Woman's place—it's a quaint notion with no equivalent in the male world—and it used to be part of a sentence that ended "... is in the kitchen," or sometimes "... in the bedroom." The late Bella Abzug, bless her, turned the notion on its head when she first ran for Congress in 1970. "This woman's place is in the House," read her slightly seditious posters, "the House of Representatives."

When I graduated in 1963—a date I repeat to remind you that there have been other Wellesley classes besides yours and Hillary's—"woman's place" was severely limited and the roadmaps to get there were unimaginably confusing. Wellesley wanted to sharpen our minds and develop our intellects, but we were led to believe that would happen only if we wore a skirt to dinner, balanced a demi-tasse cup in the living room, and took a course that taught how to get out of the back seat of a car in high heels. (I never learned.)

Society wanted us to find a husband, but you could only do that until curfew rang, which always seemed far too soon. And if you entertained a gentleman in your room the door had to be cracked open, with one foot on the floor at all times. I am not making any of this up.

In some ways, it was a deliciously uncomplicated era—a time when we referred to certain buildings as the "new dorms" because they actually were new; when there still were 7 Seven Sister Schools; when a postage stamp cost four cents. Incidentally, a postage stamp was a little colorful square of paper that you stuck onto an envelope which contained a letter that was actually written by hand. It took three to five days to reach your parents. Talk about quaint.

But there was a dismal side. In those days, getting help for emotional problems—finding a psychiatrist on campus—was something like getting an abortion: you said it was for a friend.

We even spoke a different language: Feminists were nonexistent, "coming out" was done by debutantes, and "working out" was something you did to a problem. At the bell desk in my dorm, a male guest was a "caller," a female a "visitor," and there was no question which was more important.

Perhaps you think of this as ancient history. I don't, because I majored in Greek which was ancient history—and actually made more sense. It was merely 1963, when we weren't supposed to have careers, we were supposed to marry them. I don't know who first retranslated the Wellesley motto as "not to be ministers but ministers' wives." I do know that my class twisted it even further in Junior Show. We posed the earth-shattering question: Is there life after college? And we answered it by creating a fictional finishing school in Washington, D.C., that trained graduates "not to be diplomats, but diplomats' wives." You will no doubt sleep more soundly tonight knowing that Madeleine Albright was not in my class.

The real world only reinforced that attitude. When I got to New York and started job-hunting in journalism, the doors were slammed shut against female applicants. Like all of my pals, I was told point blank by most news organizations that they "just weren't interested in girls." As for television news, forget it. That was another exclusive men's club—invented by men, run by men, aimed at men. Extraordinary as it may seem, it never occurred to any of us to question that attitude. It's just the way things were.

The breakthrough, I should point out, was not magnanimity, but a series of lawsuits and threats of same that emerged from the women's movement. I got into television in 1972 (after six years at the Associated Press) because another woman—another blonde —was leaving. The only people being auditioned had hair the color of hers—and mine. So I refer to it as the blonde seat at Channel 2 news. If you have to be female, they were saying, you better be blonde.

And thick-skinned. Television, I warn those of you who are interested, is very humbling.

There was the time I was a local TV reporter in New York, and I got a call very early one morning to cover a story at a hospital out in Brooklyn. As I was walking through the lobby—clearly a TV reporter, with me I had a cameraman and sound man in tow— an elderly gentleman came right up to me, stopped, stared and said, "Say, you're on Channel 2, you're Lynn Sherr, right?" I smiled proudly and said, "Right."

"Well," he said, squinting up at me, "you look better on television."

When I left that job and had been off the air for a few weeks, someone else actually stopped me on the street and said, "Didn't you used to be Lynn Sherr?" How does one respond?

It's like all those folks who always asked, "What's it like to be a woman in TV News?" I could never answer that one because I had no basis for comparison.

I tell you how it used to be because I want all of you to understand that the privileges we now enjoy were not always there. And that even our problems seem benign compared to those the women before us endured.

Think of this: When my mother was born, she did not have the right to vote.

It is almost impossible to believe that we have had woman suffrage in this country for only 79 years. And other rights just barely longer.

As we approach the next century, it is useful to remember the gloomy status of women early in the last one. It was a time when the 23 United States of America were ruled by Blackstone's English common law, that bluntly stated, "The husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband." It meant that a married woman in America had no legal right to any aspect of her relationship with her husband: She could not own property, earn money, make contracts, sue or be sued, or be guardian of her own children. When the law was enforced—which was often—it meant that wives could be seized if they ran away, and beaten; that they had to beg their husbands for spending money; it meant that they lost custody of their children if the father chose to spirit them away.

All women—married or not—were bound by a number of additional restrictions: They could not go to college in the early 1800s (there were none for women); they could work comfortably in only a handful of professions (housework, sewing, teaching, and factories), and when they did, generally took home a mere fraction of the pay of their male co-workers.

At the time, there were no licensed women doctors, no ordained women ministers, or rabbis, no women lawyers or elected Senators. And of course, no woman could vote. Not for school board, not for mayor, and certainly not for President of the United States. But there was no bias in taxation. Single or widowed women who did own property had to pay their dues to a government that would not let them participate in running it.

Thanks to the efforts of the bold, unrelenting women and men of the 19th century—led by my personal hero, Susan B. Anthony—all of that changed. In Anthony's case, it was done with wit, style, and a prescience that still speaks to us today.

Single all her life, she urged married women to keep their own names, telling an interviewer in 1871: "Woman has an individuality as well as man, and she should preserve it... Do you suppose that a woman who makes a reputation under her maiden name is going to lose that name by marriage, and adopt that of an unknown creature of a husband?"

A devoted Quaker, whose close friends included Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, she dismissed those who quoted The Bible to oppose woman suffrage, by saying, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

She was also one of those who fought the losing battle against the very controversial new dress reform known as the bloomer costume. Anthony abandoned her bloomers after just two years, because the public humiliation was so devastating. Why, you may ask, did anyone make such a fuss about substituting long, voluminous pantaloons for the body-constricting corsets and crinolines of 19th-century dresses? Why the controversy when not even an inch of ankle showed? You might as soon ask why, more than a century later, so many of us were at first forbidden to wear trousers to work during the mid-1970s. I think it has something to do with legs. Or, perhaps, wearing the pants.

Today, we wear what we want, and we vote as we please, and we simply assume that gender—for the most part—has nothing to do with jobs.

The rules have changed.

But as we rejoice in this new order, I urge you to remember that the rights that led to this social revolution are precious rights, hard won. They didn't appear by magic.

As Susan B. Anthony put it, "So many of these young people know nothing of the past; they are apt to think they have sprung up like somebody's gourd, and that nothing ever was done until they came."

I beg you to remember the history, to appreciate what it took to get the right to vote, to get colleges of our own, to sit at the table.

Because too many of us are still stuck in the wrong place.

Every 12 seconds in this country, a woman is battered, by a husband or a lover or an acquaintance; every day 2,160 children are born into poverty, and another 13 are killed by guns; every evening an elderly woman cannot afford to eat dinner; every payday, a woman takes home only 79 cents on the dollar earned by a man. Every time there is a war, a woman is raped... over and over and over. And far more often than we want to acknowledge, someone we know is dangerously skipping meals because she doesn't think she's worthy of being fed.

This, too, is our history; the challenge is to keep it from becoming our future.

I know you understand because you have ventured so much further beyond the gates of this glorious campus than any of us ever did. And because you as a group had the good sense to come here in the first place. I am so proud of Wellesley today—still a giant in academic excellence; once again a gutsy pioneer, with a powerful renewed commitment to turn high school girls into the bold women who will lead our world. That's you.

But as you leave here to take your place in that world, please remember this: Men are not the enemy. Women are not always the solution. We're flying on this planet together.

We need each other, because whatever you think will happen to you in the next five or even fifty years—won't. Life, famously unfair, has a maddening way of disrupting your plans.

There's a cartoon on my wall from an old New Yorker magazine: it shows a chicken tossing a few eggs up in the air, and another hen watching nearby saying, "How she's able to manage a career and still juggle her family, I'll never know." The answer is simple: The eggs could get scrambled. Get used to it.

Today I work at a job that didn't exist 36 years ago, and I get most of my information—not to mention books and auction items I don't need—from Internet cyberspots run by people half my age. OK, one-third my age.

I've had cancer and chemotherapy and am doing fine right now, thanks—a survivor, I like to think, not a victim.

I've been married and widowed and I have already bought my new step-granddaughter a Wellesley tee shirt. I've met extraordinary individuals, including a number of giraffes and gorillas—and while I don't know for sure that there's a "wonder gene," I thank my parents daily for passing it on to me. I only wish they were here to watch as the fruits of the freedom and education they allowed me are passed on so gratefully to you.

You probably know where I'm going with this. Advice. Here goes.

First, as soon as this is over, hug your parents and thank them. Then let them take all the photographs they want. When we come to do a story on you for winning the Nobel Prize or an election or for cleaning up your town dump, you'll be glad to have those pictures.

Next, don't let us in unless it's to celebrate that prize or the presidency or something else you're proud of. At the risk of getting fired from my job or at least shunned by my producers, I urge you to confess your personal problems someplace other than on television.

Last, when you climb that mountain or write that book or get that tenure and/or start that family, please: Don't gossip on elevators, don't buy a gun, don't use exclamation points when you write, and don't hesitate to call yourself a feminist. Above all, don't change your address without telling the College. I'm a trustee now and we need you.

There's a new millennium coming. We'll be hearing more about it than we may want to. Let me remind you what Susan B. Anthony told a newspaper reporter 100 years ago:

"I am filled with sadness at this passing of the nineteenth century. I feel as if I had buried my dearest friend, but then, this new century will be just as good."

The reporter interrupted with a question: "Well, Miss Anthony, what message have you for the new century?"

Anthony—who was about to turn 80— responded with eloquence: "We women must be up and doing. I can hardly sit still when I think of the great work waiting to be done. Above all, women must be in earnest, we must be thorough, and fit ourselves for every emergency; we must be trained, and carefully prepare ourselves for the place we wish to hold in the world... for woman and her influence, in making and shaping of affairs, will have to be reckoned with."

You have already proven you are a force to be reckoned with. So in the spirit of Susan B. Anthony, I urge you to continue to harness that might, to continue—in her words—to be "up and doing."

And if anyone, ever, should ask whether you know your place, the answer, of course, is yes: My place is everywhere.

Related

1999 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Read the full citations.