Student Commencement Speech by Christine Bicknell '90
Josephine Butler was an Englishwoman of the nineteenth century and a major contributor to the British feminist movement. Her struggle for justice focused on an attempt to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869. This was an act which tried to curb the spread of venereal disease among prostitutes by allowing the police to stop any woman on the street, take her to the station and give her a physical exam that would account for her state of health. This violation of women's rights affected all English women. Where previously, the middle class women's economic status shielded them from the humiliation that women of lower economic classes experienced, suddenly they were at risk of being affected by this law in the same way. Josephine Butler recognized that this violation which assaulted the humanity of one group of women, in turn assaulted the humanity of all women. Through her struggle to repeal the law, Josephine Butler intended to show her middle class peers that the oppression of one group of women was equal to the oppression of all women. In a speech before her contemporaries, she said:
"Womanhood is solidaire. We cannot successfully evaluate the standard of public opinion in the matter of justice to women, and of equality of all in its truest sense, if we are content that a practical, hideous, calculated, manufactured, and legally maintained degradation of a portion of womanhood is allowed to go on before the eyes of all. 'Remember them that are in bonds, as being bound with them.' Even if we lack the sympathy which makes us feel that the chains which bind our enslaved sisters are pressing on us also, we cannot escape the fact that we are one womanhood, solidaire, and that as long as they are bound, we cannot be wholly and truly free."
Butler's notion of womanhood as solidaire (solidaire being a community of interests, objectives or standards) was radical for the time, because in a society that divided women into separate classes and made them see. Themselves opposition to each other, it was unheard of for someone, especially in opposition to woman, to suggest that these separations might not be valid. The example of Josephine Butler may seem irrelevant to us, especially as members of institution committed to the education of diverse women, but I believe we have a lot to learn from Ms. Butler's example.
Butler said -- "Even if we lack the sympathy which makes us feel the chains which bind our enslaved sisters are pressing on us also, we cannot escape the fact that we are one womanhood, solidaire, and that so long as they are bound, we cannot be wholly and truly free." Like Butler, I feel it is important to remind ourselves that the oppression of any part of society in some way oppresses the whole. This is important to remember when in many points in our lives, the privilege of race and class make it easy to overlook the harm being done to people around us. Butler was speaking to white, upper middle class women, and she was telling them that privilege does not erase responsibility. In fact, having privilege requires a person to be more responsible. I am speaking to you, a more diverse group of women, but the message remains the same.
What, you may ask, defines privilege? In some ways, all of us here today are privileged. We have had the privilege of a first rate education in one of our country's finest institutions. We also have been privileged to have been educated in a place that focuses on women. Many of us also have had privilege based on the color of our skin. In a country whose foundations are based on unequal relations between the races, white Americans have the advantage of not having to deal with the life long discrimination that Americans of color face. In her working paper "'White Privilege and Male Privilege," Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as, "an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious." (p.1) She speaks extensively about white privilege and reminds us that although "privilege may confer power it does not confer moral strength." (p.12) She tells us that "power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or dominate." (p.13) It is power from unearned privilege" that we as women must be aware of as we head into the world beyond Wellesley College. This unearned power does not come from race alone. Those of us who are economically privileged also have advantages of which we may be unaware. Not to have to worry about how you will pay next month's phone bill, or where next semester's tuition will come from, gives one a security that not everyone has. Heterosexual men and women also have "unearned privilege." No one questions their lifestyle or discriminates against them because of their choice of living partners. The point is that all "unearned privilege" must be recognized and seen as being in operation in order for change to occur. We must remember, as Belle Hooks reminds us, that all of us, all races and both genders possess the ability to be oppressors as well as the vulnerability to be the oppressed.
More than anything I want to stress that I think dealing with our own privilege and prejudice is a continual process. There is never a point when any one of us can say, "There, I've got it. I no longer need to worry about prejudice in my life." There are always ways to change one's outlook and improve one's understanding of other people. To cease the struggle to understand ourselves and the society we live in is to cease to live in a responsible way. I know that I have not completely overcome my prejudices. I am on my journey to more wisdom and understanding just as all of you are. But the key is to realize that while our heritage or our economic position or our attitudes may condemn us to be part of the problem, we can actively choose to seek justice and thereby become part of creating and enacting the solution. Institutions share this responsibility as well, and Wellesley has begun to take the challenge to look at itself more critically in regard to these issues. It is only because I love Wellesley and value it as a place where discourse occurs and where we are not afraid to look carefully at our strengths and weaknesses that I feel it is essential to examine issues of racism and discrimination on campus.
One of Wellesley's strengths is the emphasis it places on community. The concept of community is an essential part of the Wellesley ethos, and we work hard here to encourage and build a community of women that encompasses everyone. But Wellesley needs to ask itself whose community is really being built here? Which women does Wellesley foster, and on whom does she focus her energies? We would like to think that Wellesley focuses on all women, but that would not be the most truthful answer. We have many difficult obstacles to overcome in making Wellesley a truly integrated place. Yes, we are diverse -- there are women here who a represent a myriad of nationalities, races, religions, ethnicities and classes. But, it is not our demographic plurality that reflects our true diversity. To measure the depth of our true "multiculturalism," we must look elsewhere.
For all of our recent attempts to combat racism and to "really understand each other," Wellesley has some deep roots that are difficult to overcome. Wellesley College was founded with the intent of educating women of diverse backgrounds, but given the social realities of the time, and its location, it is most realistic to accept that Wellesley was, and still is a predominantly "white" institution. But, there are many tangible things that the college can do, and that we can do as alumnae to make this a more multicultural community.
The Task Force on Racism, as well as first year ICAN workshops and other student sparked movements such as the Teach-In and the "Do The Right Thing" discussion represent honest attempts at communication on campus. Through them we will continue to learn new ways to lessen racism on campus and faster a more inclusive multicultural vision at Wellesley. The new "multicultural" requirement for all students, and the college's commitment to hiring more minority faculty are just two ways Wellesley is continuing its work in this area. I think that another way to improve real understanding and communication among students would be to expand the arts program at Wellesley. While I was away on twelve-college exchange, I had the chance to experience an arts program that included more non-Western forms of music and dance. West African dance and drumming are two popular offerings at my host school, and I think their existence adds greatly to its curriculum. By expanding our dance, Music and theatre programs to include more non-Western art forms, Wellesley could help students experience other cultures in a profound manner. One of the dangers of privilege is the ability to let other cultures go unrecognized, but by adding these types of classes to Wellesley's curriculum we would be validating important subjects too long unrecognized by traditional academic canon.
While attending Wellesley, all of us here today had the opportunity to take the Black Studies courses, Asian studies courses, Latin American Studies courses and many at-her offerings that challenged us intellectually. Hopefully none of us is leaving Wellesley without having taken advantage of these opportunities. We leave Wellesley much poorer if we have not taken seriously our responsibility to learn about each other. The privilege and empowerment that we have gained from our Wellesley education obligates us not only to recognize injustice but also to work toward dismantling it.
The idea of womanhood as solidaire is important in making us realize our similarities despite our differences, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that we all have common agendas, either publicly or privately. As. women of various races, classes and ethnicities we have differences that are important to maintaining and affirming our cultural heritage and strengthening our personal identities. The key to finding the places where we connect as people, as women, and as individuals is through dialogue and communication with each other. Mutual attempts at understanding are essential for everyone, and at Wellesley it is all of our responsibility to move beyond the comfortable limits of this college and this town in order to learn more about other people around us.
It is difficult to turn a truly critical eye toward Wellesley and ourselves, but honest analysis and continual challenge are the only ways to make progress. A friend once wrote to me, "...most of the world is scared to death to look at who they are... and will resent you for looking and holding up the mirror to them in which they see their fearfulness, not your strength." Let us hope that in our years after Wellesley, we can have the courage to continue to look at who we are and deal with the difficult issues that confront our lives. I believe that we are strong women, well educated women, women who have a commitment to bettering the world in which we live, and I believe we will meet the challenges that the world holds for us. And so, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from a powerful poem by Marge Piercy entitled "For Strong Women":
"A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving her equally for
the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is strongly afraid."
Thank you and God bless!