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April 9, 2010

Graduation Advice at Smith College a Snapshot of Changing Roles of Women

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Men primarily addressed the highly educated female audience at Smith College’s first century of commencement ceremonies, occasionally invoking gender stereotypes but otherwise rarely referencing any role for the women in their lives after graduation.

That quickly came to an end when women began taking turns at the podium regularly after 1971.

Well before a speaker offers advice to Thealexa Becker and her classmates, the first-year student has read the 70 or so commencement speeches on file in the Smith College Archives.

Becker will present her paper “Concerned Citizens, Supermoms and World Leaders: 100 Years of Smith Commencement Advice” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 17, in Seeyle Hall as part of Smith’s annual research symposium, Celebrating Collaborations.

“It is truly fascinating to look back even 30 years and see the difference in attitudes towards women,” said Becker, who performed the research as a STRIDE student for Smith’s Center for Work and Life and Women's Narratives Project.

Just four women stood before Smith’s graduating classes between 1879 and 1971, a year that marked a shift in the predominant gender of the speakers. Since then, four men have done so. This year, political analyst Rachel Maddow will further the trend of female speakers.

Becker separated the available commencement speeches into three time periods marked by shifts in themes: 1940-1969, 1970-1985 and 1986 to the present.

Notably, said Becker, early speeches were a type of “last lecture” on political subjects such as communist China, the Kremlin, isolationism of America and racism — topics that did not touch upon gender differences and could have been delivered at any institution – co-ed or single-sex.

Other speakers noted that the graduates had a social responsibility to use their education to better society. Such civic engagement was broad enough that it “could be interpreted in a variety of ways and apply to women without suggesting they fill traditional men’s roles,” said Becker.

Very few speeches addressed women’s roles, but those that did tended to reinforce stereotypes. In 1955, for example, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson spoke about the advantages of being “wives and mothers.” Their education gave women the tolerance to understand men’s “infinite variety,” he said. A few years later, New York Times correspondent James B. Reston peppered his speech by referring to the graduates as “gals” and “girls.”

It wasn’t until the women’s movement in the 70s that themes began to shift and speakers began encouraging women to take a more active role in society.

In fact, the first three speeches of 1970 offer a vast departure from the generally non-committal or regressive sentiments about the role of women from previous decades, said Becker.

The 1970 speech by Alan Frank Guttmacher, founder of Planned Parenthood, addressed such controversial issues as contraception, abortion and the American family.

“Bearing no children to replace you is no disservice to humanity…Late marriage or no marriage is neither a disgrace nor is it antisocial behavior,” Guttmacher said.

His speech “remains the most pro-feminist speech delivered by a man at Smith College,” said Becker.

Women’s rights leader and alumna Gloria Steinem followed Guttmacher to the podium a year later, urging graduates to dismiss the myth that “men need fulfilling work in addition to marriage and children, but that women, for some mysterious reason, do not.” It was her first of three commencement speeches to Smith graduates.

After Steinem, alumna and former dean of Bryn Mawr College, Dorothy Nepper Marshall spoke extensively about the importance of women’s colleges.

“A college for women simply means an institution attended by females,” said Marshall. “Whereas a women’s college means an institution that is dedicated to helping women know themselves and thus truly be able to design more satisfactory, less restrictive, and thus more fulfilling lives.”

The themes that threaded through the commencement speeches between 1970 and 1985, Becker notes, sometimes advocated for intellectual ideas as to how to broaden women’s traditional role in society and other times counseled that women would need compromise and humor in the face of difficulty.

In her speech in 1985, opera singer Beverly Sills ushered in a new era of speeches with her talk about “Having it All,” which ended with “And you will cry a lot, that is the career part.”

“Her speech changed the conversation from one about how women should get the rights and social recognition they deserve to what they do with what they have,” said Becker. It marked the beginning of the most recent period of speeches.

For Becker’s analysis of the modern themes, attend her discussion on April 17 in Room 110 of Seeyle Hall.


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