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Commencement Archive

Commencement Address 2007

Gloria Steinem '56, LTD '88; May 20, 2007

Gloria Steinem

Feminist leader and Smith alumna Gloria Steinem took the stage to a standing ovation at the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2007.

To Carol Christ who leads Smith College (and does the most amazing introductions); to the faculty who create its purpose and the staff who give it daily life; to the honorary degree recipients in whose presence I am so very proud to be; to all the families and friends and partners and children who have sustained today's graduates — especially those of you who have performed the miracle of guiding children through an experience you could not have — and most of all, to you, the beloved, brave, tired and now headed-for-the-world graduates of the Class of 2007:

The first generation of Facebook and YouTube Smithies; the class to shape and survive the most changes in the way Smith lives; the second class of the Iraq War, and the most diverse class in the history of Smith College, from Adas — who made sure that Class (economic class) Is Never Dismissed, and to all those who help Smith College look more like the world:

I thank you for including me in your historic day.

It's historic for me, too, because I was sitting where you sit today exactly 51 years ago.

I wasn't sure I should bring up this half-century fact. For one thing, I feel connected to you, not distant. For another, I feared you might go into as much age-shock as I did when I woke up after my 70th birthday, and thought, “There's a 70-year-old woman in my bed! How did this happen?!”

But then I realized that fearing separation by age was probably more my generation's problem than yours. If I conjure up my own graduation day, for instance, even life after 30 seemed a hazy screen to be filled in by the needs of others — and there were not yet even Adas to show us that life and growth continue. In our age ghetto, we pretty much accepted the idea that women were more valued for giving birth to others than for giving birth to ourselves.

Yes, many of us had professions, but they were secondary. As one of my classmates said in the light of later feminism, “I didn't have a job, I had a jobette.” We weren’t trying to change the world to fit women — and neither was Smith in those days — we were trying to change ourselves to fit the world.

If this seems hard to believe now, think of my two most famous age peers: Marilyn Monroe, who literally feared aging more than death, and Smith’s own Sylvia Plath, whose own world-class talent couldn't give her the autonomy she needed to survive.

Now, thanks to decades of feminist rebellion, your generation is much more likely to value minds and hearts and talents that last just as long as you do. You not only have a somewhat longer life expectancy physically, but faith in a much longer life of your own making. Fortunately for me, this also means you are better able to identify with other women across boundaries of age.

For instance: My generation of young women said things like, “I'm not going to be anything like my mother.” After all, if we didn't blame our mothers for living vicarious lives, we would have to admit that we might have to do the same. Even now, my generation — and probably some of yours, too — are living out the unlived lives of our mothers.

This is honorable and rewarding and loving, but it isn’t the same thing — for either mother or daughter — as living our own unique lives.

Now, I meet many young women who say something like, “I hope I can have as interesting a life as my mother.” Not the same life, but as interesting. And when I hear this, it brings tears to my eyes — because I know there is not only love between generations, as there always has been, but now there is respect, learning, a sense of balance, even an invitation to adventure.

So instead of worrying about the decades between us, I thought I would use them as a measure of the future by projecting a similar time into the future. Like the swing of a compass arm, I invite you to measure the progress made in the time between my graduating class and yours, and project into the future same distance.

What might the world be like when you are come back to visit the class of 2057?

I'm not suggesting we know what will happen, but I am suggesting that imagination is a form of planning.

So let’s take a concrete example: In my generation, we were asked by the Smith vocational office how many words we could type a minute; a question that was never asked of then all-male students at Harvard or Princeton. Female-only typing was rationalized by supposedly greater female verbal skills, attention to detail, smaller fingers, goodness knows what, but the public imagination just didn't include male typists, certainly not Ivy League-educated ones.

Now, computers have come along, and “typing” is “keyboarding.” Suddenly, voila! — men can type! Gives you faith in men's ability to change, doesn't it?

So maybe by 2057, occupational segregation — an even greater cause of wage disparity than unequal pay, may have changed enough so there will be male nurses and female surgeons. Then male medics won’t come home from the military to be shamed out of nursing jobs, and nursing will be better paid for no longer being a pink collar ghetto.

Or perhaps parking lot attendants will no longer be paid more than childcare attendants — as is now the case not because we value our cars more than our children but because the first are almost totally male and the second are almost totally female.

And most of all, maybe the vast unpaid area of care giving — whether that means raising children or caring for the ill and elderly: about 30 percent of the productive work in this country and more than half in many countries — maybe this huge and vital area of work will at last have an attributed economic value, whether it is done by women or men.

This is already a feminist proposal for tax policy. It would mean the attributed value of care giving would become tax deductible for those who pay taxes, and tax refundable for those who are too poor to pay taxes, thus substituting for the disaster of welfare. It would be a huge advance. We would at last be valuing all productive work, including that mysteriously defined as not-work: as in homemakers who “don’t work,” even though they work longer and harder than any other class of worker. (Not to mention with more likelihood of getting replaced by a younger worker.)

Take something deeper: My generation identified emotionally with every other vulnerable group, but without understanding why. Fifty years later, we understand why: females are an “out” group, too — no wonder we identified. Now there are local, national and global liberation movements based on sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. We know in these movements we are each others' allies, if only because our adversaries are all the same.

Perhaps 50 years from now the public imagination will finally understand this as one inseparable movement. The same hierarchy that controls women's bodies as the means of reproduction — which is how we women got into this jam in the first place — and says that sexuality is only moral when it is directed toward reproduction within patriarchal marriage — also controls reproduction in order to maintain racial difference and to preserve a racist caste system. We will understand that it's impossible to be a feminist without also being an anti-racist — and vice versa. Not only because women are in every group in the world but because racial caste and sexual caste are inseparable.

We will also understand that the same folks who are against contraception and abortion and even the sex education that helps avoid abortion — anything that allows the separation of sexuality from reproduction — are also against sexual expression between two women or between two men. They deny the reality that human sexuality has always been a form of communication and pleasure, not just a way we reproduce. (And I do mean always. The Native women who lived on this very land long before Europeans showed up had two or three children two or three years apart. They absolutely understood contraception, which is not just some modern gift from the pharmaceutical industry.)

No wonder anti-equality, racist and anti-gay forces are all the same, just as they were in, say, Germany under fascism, or in theocracies and totalitarian regimes now. Perhaps fifty years from now, most people will understand that reproductive and sexual freedom — and democratic families, democracy within families — are as necessary to democracy as is the vote and freedom of speech.

Or take another area very close to home. My generation often accepted the idea that the private/public roles of women and men were “natural.” Your generation has made giant strides into public life, but often still says: How can I combine career and family?

I say to you from the bottom of my heart that when you ask that question you are setting your sights way too low. First of all, there can be no answer until men are asking the same question. Second, every other modern democracy in the world is way, way ahead of this country in providing a national system of childcare, and job patterns adapted to the needs of parents, both men and women.

So don’t get guilty. Get mad. Get active. If this is a problem that affects millions of unique women, then the only answer is to organize.

I know it may be hard for women to believe that men can be loving and nurturing of small children — just as it may be hard for men to believe that women can be expert and achieving in public life as they have. If you’ve never seen a deer, it’s hard to see a deer. If I hadn’t happened to have a father who raised me as a small child as much as my mother did, I might not believe it either. But raising young children — or being raised to raise children — is the way men are most likely to develop their own full circle of human qualities, and stop reproducing the prison of the “masculine” role. Just as our role in the public life frees us of the prison of the "feminine" role.

For that matter, our kids do what they see, not what they’re told. If children don’t see whole people, they’re much less likely to become whole people — at least, not without a lot of hard work in later life.

Which leads us into the big question of violence. Gender roles provide the slippery slope to the normalization of control and violence in all their forms, from sexualized violence to military violence — which is the distance from A. to B. Until the family paradigm of human relationships is about cooperation and not domination or hierarchy, we’re unlikely to imagine cooperation as normal or even possible in public life.

We must change this paradigm for it is just too dangerous in this era of weapons — especially as it collides with religions that extol Doomsday.

It’s already too dangerous in this era when there are more slaves in proportion to the world’s population — more people held by force or coercion without benefit from their work — more now than there were in the 1800s. Sex trafficking, labor trafficking, children and adults forced into armies: they all add up to a global human-trafficking industry that is more profitable than the arms trade, and second only to the drug trade. The big difference now from the 1800s is that the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of those who are enslaved are women and children.

Yes, all this will take much longer than our projected 50 years to transform. The wisdom of original cultures tells us that it takes four generations to heal one violent act. But it’s also true that, if we were to raise even one generation of children without violence and without shaming, we have no idea what might be possible.

It won’t be easy to hang on to this vision of possibilities in ourselves and in others if we are alone in a world that’s organized a different way. We are communal creatures. So make sure you’re not alone after you leave this community at Smith. Make sure you meet with a few friends once a week or once a month; people you can share experiences and hopes with — and vice versa. Women may need this even more than other marginalized groups because, after all, we will never have our own country (good thing — it makes us anti-nationalistic), we don’t have a neighborhood; most of us don’t even have a bar.

So, if I had one wish for women worldwide, it would be a kind of global version of Alcoholics Anonymous: a network of women’s groups — also welcoming to men who have the same radical vision. These leaderless and free groups would exist in cities and villages, in school basements and around rural wells. They could spread like lace over the globe and their purpose will be to support self-authority. After all, democracy can’t exist without the help of half of the world's population.

While we’re at it over the next 50 years, remember that the end doesn’t justify the means, the means are the ends. If we want joy and music and friendship and laughter at the end of our revolution, we must have joy and music and friendship and laughter along the way. Emma Goldman had the right idea about dancing at the revolution.

So, my beloved comrades, yes this is the longest of all revolutions and that will mean a lot of struggle, a lot of organizing together and a lot of unity, but that also means a lot of dancing.

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.