Wellesley Remembers Barbara Bush’s Words to the Class of 1990

Wellesley College President Nannerl Overholser Keohane ’61, Barbara Bush, and Rasia Gorbachev at commencement in 1990.
Image credit: Bradford F. Herzog / Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives, Library & Technology Services
April 19, 2018

In 1990, Wellesley’s senior class invited then-first lady Barbara Bush to speak at commencement. In the address, which made NPR’s list of the “Best Commencement Speeches, Ever,” she told the graduates that “Wellesley, you see, is not just a place, but an idea—an experiment in excellence in which diversity is not just tolerated, but is embraced.”

Bush died on April 17 at the age of 92.

At Wellesley, accompanied by Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet Union’s president Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush said that diversity, like anything worth having, requires effort: “Effort to learn about and respect difference, to be compassionate with one another, to cherish our own identity … and to accept unconditionally the same in others."

“I believe it was the first, last, and only time all three networks interrupted regular programming to cover a first lady’s speech live,” Edward McNally, a speechwriter in the George H.W. Bush White House, recalled Tuesday, according to the Washington Post.

In a 2015 article for Wellesley magazine, Christine Bicknell Marden ’90, the student commencement speaker for her class, reflected on the controversy surrounding the decision to invite Bush to speak.

She described the media attention that began “when two of my classmates issued a protest against the selection of the first lady to be our commencement speaker. Even though she was our class’s selected second choice (our first choice, the author Alice Walker, withdrew for personal reasons), there were concerns that Mrs. Bush’s status in the world was related to whom she had married, rather than to her own accomplishments.” Marden recalled, “when word of our concerns got to the press, the firestorm began.”

Marden wrote that her favorite line from Bush’s speech, “one she knew would, and did, bring the house down—is still unrealized. ‘And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse,’ she said. ‘I wish him well!’”

Bush’s speech has been covered extensively by media outlets in the last few days, including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and virtually every major TV and cable network.

Rosanna Hertz, Class of 1919 – 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley, told WCVB that the speech came during a pivotal debate and discussion about women balancing careers and family. “I think the lasting impact is that we continue to have that discussion, and I hope with her death, right now, that we again return to the importance of having a balanced life,” Hertz said.

The text of Barbara Bush’s 1990 commencement address and a video recording are available online.