Presidents Charge

President Nannerl Overholser Keohane's Charge to the Senior Class

At the research center where I spent my sabbatical this year, a group of ten or twelve colleagues met frequently to discuss our work from an interdisciplinary perspective.  Since this was California, some of our bet discussions were over potluck suppers after a session in somebody’s hot tub.  And the most thought provoking of all our discussions were prompted by a book called Three Guineas, by Virginia Wolf. 

Three Guineas poses some fundamental challenges to the way we live our lives; and it poses some of the same challenges for the Wellesley graduates as you move from your final year in a woman’s college to the first steps in your profession.

I used the term “profession” broadly to mean skilled work of any kind, including the profession of housework and the profession of unpaid organizer for good causes.  But my message is directed particularly to those of you who are, or will someday become, ambitious to succeed in a profession more narrowly defined – in business, medicine, teaching, law, journalism, social work.

Virginia Woolf was writing in the 1930’s, at a time when women were first making their way in such professions.  She believed that the chance to earn our own livings was the most important right women had ever gained, more important even than the vote.  She was a strong believer in the talents and capacities of women.  But she was worried about the effects that these professions had had on men who were successful in them, and wondered whether there was any way for women to enter the professions and yet avoid the more obsessive and soul-deny aspects of the professional life.

As Woolf put it: “It is obvious that if you are going to make the same incomes from the same professions that those men make you will have to accept the same conditions they accept...You will have to leave the house at nine and come back to it at six [parenthetically, one must note that those hours are generous compared to what many professional people wind up doing in demanding jobs these days, on top of a long commute]. That leaves very little time for friendship, travel or art.  You will have to perform some duties that are very arduous, others that are very barbarous…In short, you will have to lead the same lives and profess the same loyalties that professional men have professed for many centuries.”

Such a life, contends Woolf, not only dramatically truncates the opportunities for other human experience, but also leads easily to possessiveness, pugnacity and greed.  The question she raises, therefor, is “how can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings?”  It is a question, which could and should be asked by your male counterparts graduating from other colleges and universities, and indeed could and should be asked recurrently by all of us of either sex who are already settled into our professions; but Woolf took it to be a particularly pertinent question for young women.

It was her argument that women, not because of any biological differences in our essence, but because of centuries-old differences in experience and culture, come to the professions with a new set of traits.  These are the cumulative result of years of exclusion from public life, of that particular strengths and weaknesses that come from living life mainly in the private house.  But because these things are culturally rather than biologically rooted, because they have sprung precisely from the conditions in which women in the past have lived, they can quickly disappear.  Woolf saw clearly that women who move into the professions on the same terms as men will very quickly begin to behave exactly like their male counterparts, gaining some of the same rewards and paying the same price.

Woolf offered two pieces of advice for remaining civilized in the professional world.  The first is straight forward, and I commend it to you without reservation: that you “help all qualified people, of whatever sex, class or color, to enter your profession.” Support others as they begin their journey up the professional ladder, rather than paying attention solely to your own progress to the top.  And watch out for the assumption that only certain kinds of people are fit to do your work; that is exactly the assumption that kept women out of the professions for so long.

But Woolf’s second piece of advice is much harsher.  I offer it to you with considerable diffidence:  she asks that we keep in touch with what she calls “the four great teachers” of women in the past, the factors which have made us what we are --- “poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties.”  By poverty, she means that you should set out to earn enough to live on, enough “to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind,” but not a penny more.  By chastity, she means avoiding what she calls “adultery of the brain”: when you have made enough to live on, you must refuse to sell your brain for money, and should give your professional knowledge for nothing to those who need it and cannot pay.  By derision, she means refusing all badges and honors and “ways of advertising merit,” believing that “ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise.” And by freedom from unreal loyalties, freedom from excessive pride in family, institutions, nationality.

You can see why I offer this advice, which is a feminist version of advice given by several great moral and religious teachers over the centuries, with diffidence.  In our California seminars, we wrestled with Woolf’s challenge, and recognized that we have all come to terms with life in other ways. We give money away to good causes, and we avoid the particular corruptions which come with believing that large amounts of money are the best way to measure value of performance; but none of us practices poverty, even in Woolf’s sense.  We try to avoid adulterating our brains, becoming too dependent on praise and recognition, and developing too great an attachment to any particular form of loyalty; but we don’t follow austere counsels of Three Guineas.

Our reason is that no one could make headway in the professions by taking her advice literally.  If you want to make a difference in the world for good, you must be willing to work hard and also play by at least some of the rules set up for success in the professions.  Otherwise none will take you seriously, and you won’t be able to accomplish anything at all. 

Yet still, Woolf’s counsel challenged us, as it should challenge you.  My primary charge to you is to give it some thought, occasionally, as you make your way in your profession.  Think of it as one extreme on a spectrum, anchored in your mind to prevent you from moving too quickly all the way to the other end.  When you find yourself becoming too obsessed with how much money you are making, as an end in itself; when you find yourself cutting corners and making compromises on things you believe.  In order to get ahead and not rock the boat; when you begin to get too addicted to praise and honor, and worry too much about censure and ridicule: or when you find yourself so caught up in particular kinds of loyalties that you can no longer see the full humanity of other human beings, take Three Guineas off the shelf as a salutary antidote.

I hope that Wellesley has taught you some lessons of this kind, in a addition to preparing you to success at whatever it is you choose to do.  You are a wonderful group of women – talented, eager, vigorous – and we look forward to watching you change the world for good.  Don’t forget to come back occasionally to report on your progress and refresh your ties with people who care about you here.  May the memories of the beauty of this place bring you serenity in troubled times.  Our blessing and best thoughts go with you.  Good luck to each and all.