May 13, 2010
Baccalaureate, part of Smith's commencement weekend, is an opportunity for seniors to pause, reflect upon and rejoice in their accomplishments, challenges and friendships. President Christ delivered remarks to the Class of 2010 in Helen Hills Hills Chapel.
I very much treasure the opportunity to speak to you all on Thursday afternoon, before commencement festivities begin, on this occasion we call baccalaureate. You’ve been at Smith at a time when the world as we have come to know it has undergone momentous change. The financial system collapsed, causing the most serious recession since the Great Depression. The reality and consequences of global warming have become so evident that only the most ignorant can deny them. We’ve seen a succession of natural disasters, with heartbreaking suffering starkly revealing the poverty of the developing world. And we experienced the election of America’s first black president—an event many thought they would never live to see.
All of these events, in their different ways, make the question more pressing, more urgent—what will I make of my life in this world? What responsibility do I have, what responsibility do I want to make it better? Can I make a difference?
Such questions at commencement are so obligatory that they can sometimes seem like intimidating clichés, particularly as they usually come from your elders. If you’ve messed up the world so badly, why does it fall to me to fix it? In my years of hearing and reading graduation speeches, delivered at many moments of historical crisis—World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights—I’ve been struck by how many speakers of considerable historical eminence simply hand off the world to the graduates, saying we haven’t had much luck, now it’s your turn. Save us from ourselves. I’m not going to tell you that today, and I am sure Rachel Maddow won’t either. What I will do, however, is look back in history at a particular theme that was on the minds of many of the commencement speakers that the classes that are coming to campus for reunion, this weekend and next, heard when they were graduating from Smith. That theme is the shape of women’s lives, their particular place and role in society.
I will begin in 1955, because that year’s commencement speech, by Adlai Stevenson, gained considerable notoriety. Adlai Stevenson, as I am sure many of you know, was a politician and diplomat. He played an important role in drafting the charter of the United Nations. He served as governor of Illinois, ambassador to the United Nations, and was twice candidate for the presidency of the United States, running against Dwight David Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. He was a brilliant orator—some said second only to Winston Churchill in the post-war period—and an intellectual—an egghead, people often joked, in part because of his prominent bald head. One of his sons was engaged to marry a member of the Class of 1955, so he was invited to speak at graduation. Later, in 1977 as the result of a prominent New York Times article, his speech came to represent the sea change in women’s roles over those two decades.
What did Adlai Stevenson tell the graduates of 1955? He told them that their destiny was to be wives and mothers, creating cultured homes for their husbands and children. He began his speech by gently mocking the way in which commencement speakers tell graduating seniors that they, as educated and privileged citizens in a free society, have an important role to play in a great historic crisis. Stevenson indeed believed that the world in 1955 is in crisis, and he told the Class of 1955 that they could make their greatest contribution to resolving that crisis by being housewives.
Even in 1955, the advice that you can save Western civilization by keeping house seems so ludicrous that it’s worth asking what Stevenson meant. Stevenson did not define the crisis of Western civilization as the Cold War. Rather he felt that Western man—and I say man very deliberately—was facing a crisis of increasing professional specialization; he was becoming the organization man, the man in the grey flannel suit. What could save Western man from this dehumanizing work life, in which he was a cog in some bureaucratic machine? You guessed it—Western women, or, more specifically, Smith women, who, with the liberal education to which Adlai Stevenson paid elaborate compliments throughout his address—were perfectly suited, to use a telling metaphor, to provide the sweetness, cultivation, and light, the sense of humane and generous existence, to men at home that they had lost at work. This is a stunning speech, for it mournfully accedes to a divorce between public and private. It relegates women to the home because of the ideological weight Stevenson feels the private world of the home must bear. Man’s home is his castle, in which his wife, with her Smith education, preserves the values of Western civilization. It is easy to mock Adlai Stevenson’s speech, but the issue he defined remains as critical now as it was then—how to connect a public world that we have limited power to change with a private one whose boundaries and values we can more easily define. Although I don’t think that many today would describe women’s destiny in Stevenson’s terms, I think we can see a similar temptation to create a perfect private place—a separate peace, as it were--that offers an alternative to a world of numbing pain and difficulty.
Just fifteen years later, in 1970, the graduating class heard one of the most controversial graduation speeches ever delivered here. The speaker was Alan Frank Guttmacher, the president of Planned Parenthood, legend has it a last-minute substitute for Richard Nixon. Guttmacher’s theme was the democratization of contraception, and he gave extensive attention to the legalization of abortion. (This is still three years before Roe vs. Wade.) Guttmacher tells the graduating seniors that they are the first generation of young women to possess the full legal and medical means to control their fertility. Motherhood, he argues, is therefore fully optional. Pre-marital sex is not immoral; failure to use birth control is. (I’ve talked to members of the Class of 1970 who said they wanted to crawl under their seats at the thought of their parents hearing all this.) Guttmacher’s speech is a watershed, for it publicly acknowledges the role of reproductive choice in women’s freedom to shape their lives. The commencement speaker the next year was Gloria Steinem.
However, the subject of motherhood did not disappear from Smith commencement speeches in 1970. Three of the speeches that reunion classes have heard focus on the question, can women have it all—meaning career and family. In 1985 opera star Beverly Sills says yes but only with a total commitment to making it work. In 2000, artist Judy Chicago says no, calling the promise that you can have it all “a pernicious lie.” In 2005, Ogilvy & Mather CEO Shelly Lazarus says you have the freedom to choose—to fit into your life all the things that you love.
In 1995, Gloria Steinem ’56 (so very close to those graduates of the Class of ’55 who heard Adlai Stevenson) returned to Smith to give the second of three commencement addresses she has given here. She treated the class to three speeches. Speech Number One—“Don’t worry about using your Smith education. Life will show you what is useful”—centers on an anecdote. Looking for the least scientific course she can imagine to fill her science requirement, she takes geology. On a field trip, while everyone else was looking at the shape of the Connecticut River, she finds a very large turtle that had climbed out of the river and up a dirt road. Full of altruistic intent, Gloria struggles to carry this huge and angry turtle back to the river. Her geology professor arrives just as she is about to put it back into the water and tells her that the turtle had probably spent a month crawling up that road to lay its eggs, and she’s undone its work. Gloria, who was a government major, said this was the important political lesson she learned in college, one cautioning her about the authoritarian impulse in politics on the right and on the left—“always ask the turtle.”
Speech Number Two—“What I know now that I wish I had known at my graduation”—is full of witty aphorisms: paraphrasing Marlo Thomas, “For a male leader to be called ruthless, he has to take over your life or your country. For a female leader to be called ruthless, she has to put you on hold.”
It is the third speech that is most important to us today—“There is no democracy without feminism and no feminism without democracy.” She argues passionately for the importance of women’s public voices. In some sense, Gloria Steinem has brought us back to Adlai Stevenson. She would say that Stevenson didn’t ask the turtle before relegating her to housekeeping, even in the interests of Western civilization, and that the separation for which Stevenson argues between the public and the private realms will erode democracy.
You will follow many different roads from Smith. Some of you will pursue lives of large public ambition; others will seek a more local role. Some of you will choose to have children; others will not. But whatever your path, remember that the cumulative power of unhistoric acts shapes the world we inhabit. I am not going to tell you it is your world to save, but it is your world to love, to change as you begin to discover what you will do with what Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.”