Gloria Steinem's Commencement Speech to the class of 1988
I am honored to share this day with all of the Class of 1988, and I will always remember it. On the other hand, you may not remember it at all. To insert a note of realism here, I don't remember one single thing about my commencement speaker, or what she said, or what he said.
Instead of one theme that might exclude many people, I'm going to be diverse in the hope of coming up with a sentence or two that might be more useful to more people. Each thought will be brief, but all have the same inspiration, the daring examples of the founders of this college. Pauline Adeline Fowle Durant and Henry Fowle Durant who once walked this land as their home, and who supervised every brick of its first buildings with idealism and with love. I call them daring examples, because they were. In the 1860s when the Durants decided to begin this college, the popular wisdom in America was that educating women was foolish at best, since their natural calling of marriage and childbearing would prevent them from using that education. And it was dangerous at worst, since many physicians believed that blood sent to the female brain in “unnatural” intellectual activity would deprive female reproductive organs. Among the dangers of education women were feared to be both sterility and insanity. As one Boston physician of the era warned, “a woman’s brain is too delicate and fragile a thing to attempt the mastery of Greek and Latin.” As another said, “There will be two insane asylums and three hospitals for every women’s college.”
We must also remember that females were not then legally defined as citizens, or even autonomous human beings- nor were they until a half century later. Then they were simply chattel, the legal possessions first of their fathers, then of their husbands. If they were disobedient, they could be legally beaten with a rod the size of a thumb- from which comes the term “rule of thumb”. If they ran away from battering husbands or incestuous fathers, they could be legally and forcibly returned.
Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists gave shelter to runaway slaves, for which they got a little support, but also runaway wives who were escaping violent husbands, or daughters escaping incestuous fathers. For that, they got even less. That, they were told, was “going too far.”
It was this sort of atmosphere that Henry Durant had the courage, and the radicalism, and the compassion, and the chutzpah, to say: “The Higher Education of Women is one of the great world battle cries for freedom, for right against might.” He advocated preparing women “for great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life, for noblest usefulness”
It’s probably symptomatic of the time that, though he and his wife worked together in this cause, I could find no quotes directly from Pauline.
So it seems to me that you and I have an obligation. We have an obligation to be at least as visionary and radical in the context of 1988 as Henry and Pauline were when this college opened in 1875.
We will spend our lives elaborating many profound changes and many ideas, but here is my list of a few suggestions.
That men care for infants as much as women do. I’m sure that you have figured out by now that for women, having it all means doing it all.
The Superwoman Syndrome is not a creation of the Women’s Movement. It’s a creation of the adversaries of the Women’s Movement. Their first stage of resistance was: “No, you can’t be a doctor, or an engineer, or a carpenter,” or whatever you wanted to be. Then, when we did these things anyway, the second stage of resistance was: “Okay, you can do that-but as long as you don’t disturb society, and keep on doing everything that you did before."
You can work full time in the paid labor force, only if you keep on working full time in the unpaid labor force. You cook three gourmet meals a day, you raise two perfect children, you dress for success, and as a women’s magazine once put it, you are “multi-orgasmic till dawn.”
It makes you tired just to think about it.
Fortunately, we have made two revolutionary discoveries which will help you greatly. First, that children have two parents, and second, that them that eats can also cook.
It will take many changes to make men equal in the home, just as it is taking many changes to give women equality outside the home. But it can be done. For instance, parental leave, not just maternity leave, so that fathers can be at home when new babies arrive. Changed work patterns so that both parents of infants and small children can choose to work a shorter day or shorter week.
The childcare systems that every other industrialized democracy in the world has begun except the United States. All the many changes were already know about and some that we will discover as we go along.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry Durant was ahead of us on this one too. His intellectual mentor was Mrs. Samuel Ripley, who has come down to us without her own name, but who was a Greek Scholar of great accomplishment, a colleague of Emerson, and the mother of seven.
Henry Durant said of his revered teacher. “I have seen her holding the baby, shelling the peas and listening to a recitation of in Greek, all at the same moment, without dropping an accent, or particle, or boy, or peapod, or the baby.”
At Wellesley, Durant followed her example in well-roundedness by supervising absolutely everything from the cooking of meals to the parsing of verbs. So he would probably be quite pleased if you refused to marry young men unless they are willing to limit their careers for the pleasure of raising children just as much as they expect you to limit yours.
And most important, children will be pleased, because they will be growing up with a father instead of too much mother, and too little father. They will know that men can be as loving and nurturing as women can, just as they know that women and men can be equally honored in authority outside the home. Therefore, whether they are boys or girls, they can grow up with all of their human qualities intact. They can grow up as whole people.
We can recognize Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Hispanic Studies, Native American Studies, as what they are: Remedial studies. Anyone who doesn’t have them is actually taking White Male Studies and a lot of people still are- including many women.
That’s why a recent study shows that women’s self-esteem actually goes down with every additional year of education. That’s because the higher up you go, the fewer women you see as educator or administrators. It’s still possible, for instance, to graduate from Harvard without ever having a woman full professor.
Because you have had the good fortune to go to a women’s college and a women’s college that is proud to have women faculty, and course content that doesn’t ignore the female half of the world, your self-esteem may be much more intact than the average American college graduate. You will be able to help us all work toward the day when we finally have Human History and Human Studies.
While we’re on the subject of a wholeness, remember that Pauline and Henry Durant founded a Student Aid Society almost as soon as they founded Wellesley. Its purpose was to diversify and to complete the student body and they raised money for it mercilessly. In part as a result, the first black woman graduated from Wellesley in 1884. In 1887, Hamlet Wright, a black woman who was to become one of the first female physicians in America, also graduated from Wellesley. So, think about the Task Force on Racism, the Town Meeting you had, the Racial Awareness Day. The Durants might well be proud of these efforts, if not their necessity. And certainly they, who understood so well that wishes to be in inclusive meant little without funding, would agree that the Task Force on Racism needs generous funding if its recommendations are to be put into practice.
As Margaret Mead once said: “Marriage worked well in the 19th century because people only lived to be 50.” Because life expectancy has increased by about 30 years since 1900, there are bound to be different ways of living. Some people will marry and raise children young, then go off amicably for another life of different accomplishments. Some will marry late, after their work lives are well under way, and have children later or not at all. Some will not marry, or will love and live with a partner of the same gender. Others will raise their children among a chosen family of friends, or find colleagues and work and shared ideals who are their spiritual family.
As the prison of form diminishes, we can pay more attention to content. That means equal power between partners and thus the possibility of free choice. That means commitment out of decision, not desperation and not pressure. That means kindness, empathy and nurturing. Because those of us who are not parents can help those who are. We can have children as our friends.
Even now, the divorce rate has begun to decline, on event that feminists have always predicted. When people use to say to me “Feminism is the cause of divorce.” I always used to say “No. Marriage is the cause of divorce.”
Forcing all people to believe they had to live one way was the cause of many bad marriages. Just as forcing all people to believe they had to be parents was the cause of many bad parents and unhappy children. No one way of living can be right for all people.
So the message is, don’t worry if our life doesn’t look like a Dick and Jane primer, and don’t worry if it doesn’t look like the yuppie opposite of a Dick and Jane primer. The point is less what we choose, than that we have the power to make a choice.
The family is the microcosm of the state. Isn't that what they told us in political science classes? So how come they never figured out that we will never have a truly democratic state until we have a democratic family? The law doesn’t stop at the family door, as the so-called pro-family forces would have it. Without some guarantees of rights and safety in the household for women, men, and children, we will never have the example and training for equal rights in a larger world.
In other words, politics isn't just what goes on in the electoral system or in Washington, politics is any power relationship in our daily lives. Anytime one group is powerful over another, or one individual over another, not because of talent or experience, but just because of sex, or race, or class, that's politics. So when children have only their father's names, that's politics. And when men have one job and women have two, one outside the home and one inside it, that's politics. And when students and faculty of color are present in smaller proportions on our campuses than their proportion in the population, that's politics.
So we can have a serious revolution about words and naming, about child care and cooking, about one group deprived of their own culture and another group deprived by living in a white ghetto. We can have a revolution about these things. Indeed, we are.
I could list many more thoughts that are, to 1988, what a college for women probably was in 1875. Achieving reproductive freedom, for instance, that is, the right to decide whether and when to have children without government interference, is a basic human right.
Or changing those remaining images of God that look remarkably like the ruling class, to an understanding that God is present in women, in men, in all races, and indeed in all living things. As the great archaeologist Henry Breasted commented, after years of studying Egypt, the birthplace of monotheism, “Monotheism is but imperialism in religion.”
But I will content myself with just this one last thought which makes it an even half dozen. That violence is never an acceptable way of solving conflict. And indeed the most violent societies are the most sex-role-polarized ones. And the few societies without institutionalized violence have the most flexible sex roles. Males are not told that they must be aggressive, violent, or victorious to earn masculinity. And females are not told they must endure or support aggression in order to be feminine. In uprooting sex roles, we may be rooting out a major paradigm of violence on this fragile spaceship Earth, where we can afford violence no more.
Now I know people will scoff at these futuristic goals, just as they did at educated women 113 years ago. They will say that men will never raise children as much as women do. "Give me a break,'' they will say. Or that racism and violence is in our genes. But these same people accept male mastery of unknown technologies and their ability to travel in outer space. So they can master the known and rewarding process of child-rearing and voyaging in inner space. Men have been deprived of their whole selves, too. If we accept micro and mega computers, space umbrellas, and cracking the mystery of the human cell, why can't we accept things as small as changing the way we pay each other, honor each other, work together, and raise our children?
So I bring you hope for a future that will progress far more rapidly than in the past, because you, the class of 1988, are going to help make it happen.