Commencement Address

Linda Wertheimer's Commencement Address to the Wellesley College Class of 2003

Thanks very much.

Thanks to President Walsh, who was in my little sister class; to the trustees of the College; to the very distinguished faculty; to the parents and friends of the class of aught three, some of you have come a very long way to be here; and most especially, thanks to Beverly and Kathryn and the senior class for inviting me to speak. You cannot imagine what a thrill it is for me to be standing here, after sitting there about three hundred years ago.

When I came to Wellesley back in the day, I had never seen the place. I came east from the desert of southeastern New Mexico, traveling on the San Francisco Chief (that's a train). It was my first trip east of Oklahoma. My mother took an alpaca coat passed on from a cousin and relined it with fake fur, possibly leopard. The coat was so fat (in the old meaning of the word) that I couldn't put my arms down at my sides. But it was warm, and I wore it. And when I fell down on the ice (we desert dwellers don't go in snow), the coat cushioned the fall. One of my friends who came here from Ardmore, Oklahoma, brought a wardrobe like mine, what we in the west called "dyed to match" sweaters and matching skirts in brilliant colors, so not Wellesley. But we survived that, and graduated, and spend a long weekend together almost every year with a dozen other friends from here. It's one of the great rewards of this place: friends to keep for forty years and counting.

I have a couple of assignments for you, as you head out into the wide world. Some of the Davis Scholars will remember the first time we went through this, but you younger women are graduating into a time that resembles the Cold War period, when all our thinking was organized around the fear of our enemies and how to hold them in check. When I graduated in the sixties, we were still battling communism in Vietnam and after that, in other proxy wars in Africa and South America, financed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

It was a tense time, when we were forced to think about annihilation. Instead of WMD, we had MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. And there were times when we felt we were close to destruction. I was here at Wellesley during the Cuban missile crisis. Big bombers based way north flew down the coast all night. We sat in the corridors of Bates, out of some dim notion that we should stay away from windows, and listened to those rumbling airplanes, afraid that we were listening to the end of the world.

Now some people are nostalgic in a terrible way for the Cold War years, when every country knew its role and relative value to the superpowers. Clearly, that's not true in this iteration of fearful international politics. Now this country is the hyper power, reinventing its role, exploring the ways the world will work now. And how the United States uses its power, how it balances force and negotiation or mediation, how it treats other countries, when it uses force and how much force it uses, all that is up for grabs right now.

Working it out will take a lot of thought by a lot of smart people. You need to be thinking about how it all ought to work. If you think this country's intelligence forces aren't delivering the goods, maybe they need your help. It would have been unthinkable for most of the children of the sixties to consider working for the CIA or the military, but it's not unthinkable now. Maybe what's needed is a few good women.

I don't for a moment deny the seriousness of the concerns this country has today. The theory of falling dominoes turns out to have been a theory. The reality of falling skyscrapers is something else entirely, and our people understand it very well. This country is always inclined to stay at home between its shining seas, and yet polls tell us that the American people are strongly behind the effort to stop terrorism. And beyond that, they say that having gone to war, this country should now spend the time and the money to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring the kind of order and eventual self-government and (we hope) sustaining democracy to Iraq, the government that the President talked about when that war began. But whatever we do, I hope that we will not recreate, as we struggle for new ways to respond to new dangers, the climate of fear and mistrust of the Cold War days. I wish I could tell you how to make terrorism untenable, the harboring of terrorists unthinkable, without doing violence to the principles we stand for, but I can't. I'm not sure our leaders in Washington can, but somebody has to, possibly you. I would like to think that, years from now, two women from here will sit down across a table, representing their respective countries, and work something out to make it better.

The other assignment has to do with politics in this country. As you know, the country is tied, with just about as many people and electoral votes in the red states as the blue states. The Congress is closely divided. Republicans are in charge of everything, but with slender majorities. There are some obvious things to say about politics in a time like this; one is that every vote clearly counts. So do it. Take seriously your responsibility to send somebody sensible to Congress. There is a great need under that great dome for sensible folks. Vote in the primaries, preferably against the incumbents. It probably won't change the outcome, but do it to let them know you care. If you step up to the voting booth without a cheat sheet, vote for all the women. They haven't been around long enough to be seriously evil. There are always exceptions, of course.

Consider running for office. More smart women are bound to improve things. Davis Scholars, you've finally had time to come back to college; now might be a good time to serve your country.

I don't think that a closely divided Congress is a bad thing. It ought to mean that the center rules, that majorities can be cobbled together from both parties' mainstream members, people who use words like cooperation and compromise, and don't mean those words to be accusations. But it isn't working now. Rather than the center, the parties are reaching out to their fringes, hoping for every last vote in elections. Consider who's on those fringes and you can see why politics has been getting stranger and stranger. Partisanship, which is not a bad thing, necessarily, has made progress impossible. In a "my way or the highway" approach to politics, constructive things like compromises can't happen. Both parties think the other party started this, and they're right, or at least it's so long past anybody's ability to fix blame that it's not worth the effort.

Instead, somehow we have to turn down the temperature and persuade our elected leaders that fundraising and reelection is not their only purpose in life, that these are serious times and may require serious thought about what to do. In times of peace and prosperity, we can mostly ignore our government, but now we need all hands on deck. Somehow, the American people have to get their attention. Defeating one or two is always a good way. Again, you should consider getting involved, getting elected.

There is nothing more rewarding in terms of what you can do for other people than a career in public life. Now White House interns have a bad name recently, but you'd be amazed at the kind of responsibility interns and volunteers have in high places: all that emphasis on shrinking the size of government has made powerful people very short-handed.

If you should go into public life or go to work in government, you won't make a lot of money (we hope you won't make a lot of money), but you could make a great deal of difference. I don't think it ought to matter which party runs the place, if our politicians are people of goodwill who are trying to get as close to the good of the country as circumstances will allow. But that "people of goodwill" part ­ I can remember when it was so, but it has not been so for a long time.

I'm sure that many of you will go to graduate school. Others already have jobs to go to after a suitable post-grad fling. In any case, almost all of you are leaving here. Now I ran like a scalded cat from any possibility of more school, and immediately went to work in what was then legally, by custom and tradition, in every way a man's world: News. I went for an interview at NBC, the home then of Huntley and Brinkley. I told the executive who interviewed me that I wanted to be a reporter, and he told me "women are not credible delivering the news." I gave him the benefit of my views on that; he didn't hire me.

But what I took with me from Wellesley was something I didn't even know I had: the habit of inquiry, of study, of thinking and writing clearly, all basics we take from this institution. But there's something else, that was true in my day and I suspect is still true now: Women rule here. They run the place, and the place is run for them. Presidents and department heads, scholars, leaders on campus, stars of stage, screen and radio are all women here. I found that once I had a taste of running things, of being in charge, I never wanted to give it up. Now I can see, looking back, that it was not very realistic thinking on my part then, but it didn't matter, because I and other women like me made it true. We walked face first through quite a few brick walls. Any working woman my age can probably tell you the times she was the first woman to do something in her workplace: make partner, work through pregnancy, become chief of surgery, curator of painting, the first woman in a newsroom, the first woman hired.

But we've left quite a lot for you to do first. Political corruption opened "gates" for women. Now about ten percent of Congress is female, but a number of state legislatures are at fifty percent and counting. Just now the House has the first woman minority leader. If the Democrats retake the House in her lifetime, Nancy Pelosi will be the first woman to be Speaker. She had a celebratory lunch after she won, and invited all the women who'd ever served in Congress. She and the other women currently serving must have conferred on what to wear, because they weren't in pant suits or corporate uniforms. They were in bright, beautiful dressmaker suits, very girly suits, and they looked "mahvelous."

I think of the women who blew the whistle on corporate corruption and I wonder if there may not be opportunities for women opening up more quickly in that world. In politics it really is true that women are regarded as more trustworthy. Perhaps trustworthy might make a comeback as a value in business, with stockholders if with nobody else.

I am fascinated by the idea of women entrepreneurs who grow weary of crashing into glass ceilings, who start their own businesses. If I were starting now, I'd seek them out. Some of them may need your help. Or perhaps you have a good idea.

And there are some big firsts still out there: first woman president or vice president, the first woman to serve as joint chief of staff or chief of staff for the Army or the Navy or even the Air Force. But we all know that. Here's the one I'm hoping somebody will crack: The first woman in television news to be working at the age Mike Wallace is now.

I want to see you have as long a professional life as you want. I want to see blatantly middle-aged women continue to succeed, the first little old ladies to routinely stick it out at the top the way little old gentlemen do now. Do I want to see the female equivalent of Strom Thurmond serve in the Senate for more than forty years? Hillary at the age of 93 -- that's a tough one.

The critical thing to do, wherever you are headed, is work to make a difference, to make an institution or a company or a movement or a family better because you are there. This is a time when jobs are hard to find, and many of you will have to settle for considerably less money than you'd hoped to make when your class entered Wellesley. But if that means that you take a job with a non-profit, or volunteer in a campaign, or apprentice yourself to someone doing interesting work, or start a family, it might be an adventure instead of a hardship. Many of us land a job and stay in that field out of inertia. Sampling some entry level jobs, moving around, exploring, might show you something you didn't know about what you're good at and what you want to do with your life.

The most important decision you'll make, probably in the next few years, is the decision to spend your life with another person. Now, if marriage is what you have in mind, there sampling is a bad idea. Go carefully. Choose someone kind, someone who will make room for a smart woman. Never underestimate how hard you may be to live with, especially if you're trying to change the world. And again, making a living is important, but making a difference is more important.

Now here are some bits of advice which I think everyone can use, words to live by: Floss. Purchased teeth are really never quite the same. Use sunscreen, in case the sun ever comes out again. Call your mother, often. And speaking of mothers, you'll no doubt be hearing soon from your Alma Mamma, and you should (when you can) send something back to this place. The habit of giving is a great habit to have.

Just one more thing: I spent four years here and almost forty years out in the wide world, and I can tell you from my own experience that nothing I have done in my life was as hard as Wellesley. You're gonna like what happens next.

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2003 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

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