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May 2010

The Speech

131 years of Smith College commencement speakers: Who were they? How were they chosen? What have they said?

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Since the early days of Smith College, ministers, politicians, journalists, poets and activists have taken turns offering wisdom to departing graduates.

The speaker is selected through a process that begins with nominations from the graduating class. The Honorary Degrees Committee – comprised of faculty, staff and students – reviews the nominations, identifies a subset and polls the seniors on their preferences. Then, guided by the poll results, the college president extends the invitation.

This year, during the college's 132nd ceremony on May 16, at 10 a.m. in the campus Quadrangle, political analyst and media host Rachel Maddow will fill that role.

Once the speaker accepts, she or he must begin the task of crafting an address that will retain the attention of thousands of students, their family members and friends. Smith's commencement speakers have touched upon a variety of themes over the years. First-year Thealexa Becker recently researched those documents for her paper “Concerned Citizens, Supermoms and World Leaders: 100 Years of Smith Commencement Advice.”

The following is a sampling of quotes from past speeches:

“The question is whether you are to give the world in which you were reared and educated the broadened benefits of that education.” – John F. Kennedy, then-Massachusetts Senator.

“If you ask me how you are going to tame a man, and have five rebellious children, and remain beautiful, serene and intellectual while keeping up with the Cold War and running the League of Women voters, I’ll have to ask you to see my wife. But I do know that unless you try hard, it won’t be done, and after all, life is a long process in which we all have to develop the courage to fail.” – James B. Reston, New York Times correspondent.

“You should be in a position to instruct your husbands and other admirers as to the issues before the country and as to exactly how they should vote on them.” – Francis T.P. Plimpton, former United Nations representative.

“The statistics are in favor of your marrying, having children, moving to the suburbs and becoming active public-spirited members of a pleasant and usually lily-white community. The PTA will seek you out. You may even join a fair housing group. You will get a feeling of becoming involved, doing good, caring about important issues. You will be kidding yourselves. Unwittingly your energies and your talents will be helping to make the suburbs relatively more attractive than the cities and thereby helping to pull more white families to them. You will be working in and with a system which, albeit unconsciously, is the mot effective force operating to divide America into two societies separate and increasingly unequal.” - Edward J. Logue, Boston University professor of government.

“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.” - Alan Frank Guttmacher, founder of Planned Parenthood.

“The Dark Fifties, I am afraid, were not brightened much by the encouragement of women to be ambitious or autonomous – to dream unfeminine dreams. A more representative question was asked me by a vocational adviser when I brought up the subject of law school. ‘Why study three extra years and end up in the back room of some law firm doing research and typing,’ she said with good sense, ‘when you can graduate from Smith College and do research and typing right away?’” – Gloria Steinem, alumna and women's rights activist.

“A college for women simply means an institution attended by females, 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." - Dorothy Nepper Marshall, former dean of Bryn Mawr College.

“The ideology of the education you have just spent four years acquiring in a women’s college, has been largely, if not entirely, the ideology of white male supremacy, a construct of male objectivity.” – Adrienne Rich, poet.

“Women are told today that they can have it all. I would like to tell you that if the world ‘all’ means career, marriage and children, then you can have it all, but someone is going to pay for it. This ‘all’ can bring you every kind of fulfillment, excitement, fun, reward, but you really have to make a commitment to making it work. You will need lots of give, lots of compromise, lots of humor. You will have to be competitive but only enough to be exciting and not, for God’s sake, enough to be bored. You will need to be proud of your femininity, but you will have to substitute the words ‘our thing’ for ‘my thing.’ And you will cry a lot, that is the career part.” – Beverly Sills, opera singer.

“From this day forward, you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you are doing and where you stand. You will have to rely, instead, on an inner compass; and whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze; or a doer, determined to chart your own course and unafraid, when necessary, to set sail against the strongest wind.” - Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State.

“For now, just measure the distance from my graduation to yours -- from my class with only one student of color to your diverse class; from my era of no women’s history to yours that has been strengthened by women’s history. You can match or surpass that distance that we have covered. Now, it's true that I have every intention of living to be 100. But even I, hope-oholic that I am, know when you return to celebrate your victories and inspire the class of 2057, I won’t be with you. But then again: I will.” – Gloria Steinem, alumna, during her third trip to the podium to deliver a commencement speech at Smith.

“If you can point to something, you might lose it, or you might break it, or someone might take it from you. As long as you store it inside yourself, it’s not going anywhere -- or it’s going everywhere with you.” – Award-winning playwright Margaret Edson, a Smith College alumna who teaches kindergarten in the Atlanta public school system.

“My bio says I won my first campaign for public office when I was 24 years old. But my classmates always remind me that’s not completely true. My first campaign was right here at Smith when I ran for president of my house. I felt confident. I had passionately followed politics for years. And, not only was it my house, it was called Baldwin House.Needless to say, I lost. But, I learned my lesson. I’ve never run another campaign against a Smithie. And I’ve never lost another election.” – Tammy Baldwin, Smith alumna and the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives from her native Wisconsin.


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Smith College
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Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
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