Gail Collins

Gail Collins

Commencement Address

May 23, 2010

Congratulations. This such a great day.

Today is totally about you, and I want you to take advantage of that.

When you go out to celebrate, to parties and dinners, feel free to be totally self-centered. Tell long stories about people that your family has never heard of. Take bites of everybody else's dessert.

It's your day.

Tomorrow you have to remake the world. But for today--enjoy.

I hope you'll have only good memories of this day. I'm kind of in the business of collecting memories, and I find that people tend to cherish the best ones, while they repress the unpleasant parts of the past. When I was writing my last book I interviewed tons of women who were working or going to school in the early 1960's. Most of them remembered it as a really good time--the economy was great, they were doing better than their parents.

It wasn't until you started prodding that they'd say--Oh yeah, when I applied for a promotion my boss said it was impossible because women can't manage men. Or: All my credit cards were in my husband's name. Or--my favorite--when we were graduating from Barnard, the seniors who were engaged got corsages, and they gave those of us who weren't engaged lemons.

Or, I worked in the post office, but they made us all wear skirts even in the winter because slacks weren't ladylike.

Almost everybody had a story about not being allowed to wear pants. And you know, when I was in college in Milwaukee in the late 1960s, we weren't allowed to wear slacks out of the dorm--unless we were going bowling.

Older women often tell me that their daughters don't want to hear about what happened back in the day. Sometimes their complaints are so plaintive it sounds a little like: "They have no idea how we suffered! We had to walk 50 miles in the snow! With no slacks!" And they don't appreciate it.

But to tell you the truth, in many ways we had the easy road. There is absolutely nothing better than being out on a picket line, carrying your protest sign, fighting against things that are so totally, obviously wrong that you suspect even the people you're picketing know it.

By the way, the year after I graduated from college a friend of mine organized a slack-in--all the women wore pants to class. It took one day. The administration instantly caved in. And a good time was had by all.

Your challenges are going to be more complicated. You've got to tackle all the problems we couldn't fix--while you're trying to take advantage of what the world will tell you are endless opportunities.

Recently there's been a lot of talk about surveys that show women, in general, say they're less happy then men. Whenever I hear that, I'm reminded of something the great columnist Ellen Goodman wrote in the 1980s.

Back then, Ellen said her women friends tended to be much happier than her men friends. And she theorized that was because the men had all grown up expecting to be president of the United States. But instead, they became state department officials or college professors. And the women had all grown up expecting to be receptionists. And they wound up as state department officials or college professors.

But now you're stuck with the great expectations. You won't be able to make history just by going to medical school. And we're starting to run out of first-woman-evers. (Although I would encourage everybody out there to shoot for baseball commissioner.)

But I know you're going to make history all the same. You're going to write the next chapter. I can't wait to see what happens.

The women who went before you won legal equality for our sex. They opened a thousand doors.

But here's what they didn't do.

They didn't end violence against women. They tried, but today celebrities who beat up their girlfriends, who sexually harass powerless women in bars, are still treated less severely then celebrities who mistreat animals.

So we're going to have to pass that battle on to you.

They didn't achieve full rights for gay couples. This is the one area, people, when you can be on a picket line and be totally confident that the winds of history are at your back.

And they didn't figure out how to find a proper balance for work and family.

When I was in school I wasn't all that imaginative about the future. But if you had told me, or my friends, that 40 years down the line, men wouldn't be automatically shouldering half the child care duties, that they wouldn't be as ready as women to take time off or to work from home while the kids were young, I'd have been shocked.

If you'd told me that early childhood education wouldn't be a national entitlement like kindergarten, that companies wouldn't provide day care for their employee's children, that there wouldn't be tons of opportunities for work sharing, I'd have been stunned.

But here we are, more than half the labor force is now female, and still no one's answered the question of who takes care of the kids when the parents are at work.

Congress passed a national entitlement for quality early childhood education in 1971. It was vetoed by Richard Nixon, and it's never come back again. And given the trouble we've had getting health care reform, I don't think a national solution to the work-family issue is on the immediate horizon.

But we have to start. We have to make sure that low-income women have access to the quality day care they need. That's an unkept promise that congress made when it ended welfare as an entitlement.

Meanwhile, for the women who are higher on the socio-economic scale, the most practical advice I have to give you is to pick a good partner.

We're trusting you to pick up these fights.

And whatever the problem, no matter how complicated, the solution always begins the same way. Talk to other women. Support other women. Have confidence in the community of women.

And have faith in your future.

The single fact that completely overwhelmed me when I started poking around at women's history was that the vision of women's limitations, of their capacities, of their place in society was not really all that different in 1960 than it was in 1060.

But then it changed. It changed in my lifetime, a fact that completely knocks me out and cheers me up on my worst days.

And it changed for you.

It prepared a platform for you--the new women who grew up just being themselves.

We have been waiting for you for all of western history. You're special, you're chosen, and I cannot wait to see what you do with the gifts you've been given.

Feel free to wear pants.

Find a partner to love and a job you adore so much you would do for free--although you really do have to demand that they pay you.

Have a great day. Eat many desserts.