Commencement Address

Excerpts from the Remarks of Susan Estrich '74

It is a an honor for me to be here, because Wellesley is such an important part of who I am.  It was here I learned that women can do anything.  It was here I discovered the virtue of patience and the power of endurance.  Most of all, in these green expanses I found that friendships with women can provide the strength and love and comfort and support that allow you to bring your community with you wherever you go.

Recently I have been reading excerpts from this year’s crop of commencement messages.  If one theme comes through, it is neo-bohemianism.  A prosperous, jaded, older generation is telling the class of ’89, “Throw away your Filofax.”  "Get off the career escalator."  Says one speaker “You have nothing to lose but your Mazdas.” Says another businessman, “Business stinks.”

To my ears, it is a curious message.  Perhaps I have too much faith in Wellesley women to fear you will follow too obediently or too long a drummer with no ear for music.  Perhaps it’s just that I hear such advice as someone who only last year paid off her last student loan.  But, ultimately, I find this capitalistic nostalgia for Woodstock odd, because the choice facing women like us is not whether to get on or off the escalator, but whether we can find or build one to ride. 

We have done better at opening doors than at changing the rules for everyone who has passed through them.  And while I can tell you that a life devoted to the law, or to medicine or science or business, has enormous rewards, I cannot tell you that they are greater than the joy your parents are feeling today. We have many more choices than our mothers did; but we still can’t have them all at once.  Most of us choose to juggle, which is different from having it all. 

It is said that we are entering a post-feminist stage: that your generation has no need for the politics, or the labels of mine.  To some, perhaps the labels are deceptive, or frightening. But at the core, most of us want the same things: careers that fulfill us, families that love us, lives that enrich us.  Very few escalators were built with women in mind.  The question for us is not so much to get on or off, but whether- together- we can find ways to ride to the top without losing ourselves.

My idea of a feminist is not complicated; nor, I hope is it frightening. It is someone trying to live to her fullest, not only for herself, but also for those women, and men, who come after her.  It is an idea broad enough to encompass the women who taught me at Wellesley- taught me not only political science and economics, but also that women could be scholars and leaders.  It is what I try to do in my life.  It is what I hope you will try to do in yours. 

But I cannot talk about freedom, or about women, or about law and politics, without recognizing an issue about which I feel deeply, that unites them all.  I do not expect to convince those who disagree with me; I can only ask for your courtesy.

…One can debate endlessly whether Roe v. Wade was rightly decided:  whether the Constitutional right to privacy is broad enough to encompass a woman’s choice as to when and whether to bear children…This is one of those debates where you can tell the winner just by hearing the question;  if the issue is choice, the pro-choice side has won;  if the issue is abortion, the pro-lifers have.  He- or one hopes in this case, she- who controls the language, wins the dialogue.  And if we do not control the Court, we had better control the debate. 

As women, we have a rare opportunity to wield power.  Half the population to this country will never vote as a single block.  But if ever there were an issue that could unite the great silent majority of us, it is control over our bodies.  If ever there were an issue where women should be the leaders- speaking, writing, organizing, and most important of all, running for office- it is the issue of our autonomy and our right to sexual equality.  And if we step up to our obligation and take advantage of our opportunity, we will do far more than all the symbols and tokens and first thises and thats  have done: we will change forever the life of women in American politics.

Life goes in strange cycles.

Many of the women who blazed the trial in politics had little choice but to stand aside in the end, or be pushed there by men.  But today, it is our issue that is moving to center stage; and our leaders, these women, stripes earned, will stand there as well.  As they deserve to- if not just as we planned it.

Many women in your generation have hesitated to become feminists, thinking you needed no labels and no help.  You will discover, I fear and hope, that you no longer have that luxury- that you, too, must fight for freedom, just as generations of Americans before us have done and just as our sisters and brothers around the world yearn to do.