May 25, 2008
President Creighton, members of this distinguished faculty, parents and friends of the graduating seniors, sister/fellow honorees, I am delighted to be here with you today to celebrate the accomplishment of the women of the class of 2008. My congratulations to each of you and also to your teachers and parents. You have all played a part in the unfolding drama of women's education, a drama in which Mount Holyoke has taken and continues to take a leading role. Women's education is essential to realizing the democratic vision of a society based on equal voice and governed by free and open debate, but the education of women is also subversive. We have come now to a crucial act in this drama. The world you will enter as college graduates is replete with choice and opportunity, and amidst these choices lies a question which in one way or another you will answer. Let me sketch the scenario that has brought us to this point.
When Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, it was to open the doors of higher education to women, including women of limited means. Her vision was one of academic excellence and purposeful engagement in the world. As the first of the Seven Sisters colleges, Mount Holyoke led the way toward providing women with the same education their brothers enjoyed in the Ivy League. She encouraged every woman to be a pioneer, to go where no one else has gone and to do what no one else has done. Women were to be held to the same standards as men and then freed to realize their potential.
The second act of this drama began in the 1960s, with the second wave of feminism--one of the great historical movements for human liberation: the movement to free democracy from patriarchy. Again the call of equality and freedom was sounded, and in the tradition of the Abolitionist Feminists of the mid-nineteenth century, the causes of civil rights and women's rights were joined. It was a call to end discrimination and intolerance, to recognize that civil rights are human rights and women and people of color are humans. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. capture the spirit of that time: injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere; we are born into a network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny; what affects one directly affects all indirectly. The value placed on independence yielded to the recognition of interdependence. As Auden had written on the eve of World War II, "we must love one another or die."
In Act III, the implications of this began to sink in. Women gained access to what formerly were men's occupations and professions. And here a battle was joined: in entering structures designed by and for men, would women fit themselves into these structures, becoming in effect like men, or would women make a difference: bring an outsider's eye, a different voice, challenge the framework--the way we structure love and work? My friend, Wendy Puriefoy, put it this way: it's the difference between someone saying, you can come into my house, you can come into every room of my house but it's still my house, and saying, let's redesign the house. But as the poet, Audrey Lorde, observed, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." To redesign the house, there was a need for new words and new methods.
So we come to the present, Act IV, The issues and conflicts have been exposed. You are graduating at an historic moment in American history: a woman and an African-American are the leading candidates for the nomination to become president. This is a legacy of the 1960s, although at the time it would have seemed a dream. It's no surprise that racism and sexism have dogged this election season in their usual, ugly forms. What is surprising is the depth of the yearning for a new conversation, especially among members of your generation.
We have heard a remarkably candid and forward-looking speech about race that asked us to know what we know about the continuing animosities between black and white Americans, to understand what is fueling these animosities, and to transcend them in the interest of realizing a more perfect union. The comparable speech about gender remains to be written. It is strikingly more difficult to conceive. There are silences on the part of both women and men, in part because women and men live so intimately with one another, not simply in marriage or as lovers but also as sisters and brothers, parents and children. We know a lot about one another that can't easily be said or fit into the existing terms of the public debate. When a four-year-old asked his mother one day, "Mommy, why are you sad?" and she, wanting to shield him from her sadness, said, "I'm not sad," he said, "Mommy, I know you. I was inside you." Until we can speak candidly about gender, understand and transcend the persisting animosities between men and women, we will not realize the dream of a more perfect union.
There used to be an ad prominently displayed on New York buses and subways: You don't have to be Jewish to like Levy's rye bread. You don't have to be a feminist or a woman to see the problems inherent in patriarchy. This was brought home to me when a friend suggested I reread The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne was no feminist; he said horrible things about women writers, but he was a man raised by his mother, and the emotional turmoil he experienced following her death released a voice in him that enabled him, in Shakespeare's phrase, "to speak what you feel, not what you ought to say." The Scarlet Letter is a novel about patriarchy, a word Hawthorne uses repeatedly, and its handmaiden, Puritanism. It's also about democracy and love. And at its heart lie the dual recognitions that patriarchy and Puritanism can be undone by the honest voices of women and that love is the subversive act in patriarchy. It was Hester Prynne's "lawless passion" that freed her mind from the "iron framework of reasoning" that held the structures of patriarchy in place. She had broken its Love Laws--Arundhati Roy's phrase for the laws dictating "who can be loved and how and how much." She could no longer be a "goodwife." Yet thrust outside the framework, she was able to see the frame, and seeing it, to realize that what had been built up in one way could be torn down and built up anew.
Men of the sword, she observed, had overthrown nobles and kings. But the creation of a just and equitable society required a psychological transformation. a change in the nature of man and of woman, or, as she says, in "what through long hereditary habit had become like nature." The political vision could not become a reality without this psychological transformation, but it was a task was more daunting than overthrowing nobles and kings because it involved a change in what had come to seem like human nature. What Hawthorne dramatized in his radical novel was how the tensions between democracy and patriarchy not only play out on the public stage but infect the intimate lives of women and men, where they register as unhappiness.
At the end of the novel, when Hester takes up her lover's failed mission as a radical ministry, she assures the people who come to her for comfort and counsel that "at some future time, when the world has grown ripe for it, a new truth will be revealed in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." And this new truth, she says, must be brought by a woman.
I think the time is now and the woman may well be a Mount Holyoke graduate. Attending a women's college now offers different advantages than it did in the past. The very choice of a women's college, given the alternatives, focuses the question of gender. Your experience at Mount Holyoke, living and learning in a diverse and international community of women, inoculates you against what the historian Jacob Burkhardt called the "terrible simplifications--distorted and simplistic ways of thinking that undermine civilization and lead to tyranny and wars, including prominently, I would say, simplistic ways of thinking about gender. Your liberal arts education equips you to challenge those who dismiss gender issues as women's issues or as outdated, who do not recognize the toll patriarchy exacts on men, who do not see gender binaries and hierarchies as inconsistent with democracy and freedom.
Hester Prynne was right; women must take the lead in speaking these truths, not because we are essentially different or have been socialized to be resisters, but because we have a psychological advantage when it comes to resisting gender norms and values that deform human nature. Our initiation into the gender codes and scripts of patriarchy typically occurs at a later time in development than it does for men. The division of girls into the good and the bad, the idealized and the degraded, the loved and the despised, the pure and the defiled, occurs at adolescence, when girls come to be seen as young women and gain reproductive capacity. For boys, the game of the good guys vs. the bad guys and the policing of the gender binary, where being a boy means not being a girl and also being on top, begin around the age of four or five. What this means is that girls can more readily see and speak about what boys have also experienced but being younger, are less able to articulate and resist: a loss that is psychologically destabilizing.
When women stop talking about gender, when we don't have the words or the concepts, when our honest voices are dismissed as stupid or crazy or bad or wrong, this liberatory conversation stops. The Love Laws are tightened, and the tensions between democracy and patriarchy seemingly disappear. There is no problem, we are told, really, no problem. And yet that's not what we see. Why are we at war again? Why in an age of increasing economic inequality and global warming have abortion and gay marriage became wedge issues in American politics?
The challenge now of women's education and specifically women's higher education is to lead a new conversation about gender. To take on the creative challenge of redesigning the house and building a new framework. Thus we will come to the end of the old play, having gained the tools to write one that is new.
As your graduation speaker, I am supposed to give you advice, so I have two suggestions: When you hear yourself judging yourself or condemning other women, try substituting curiosity: how interesting, you might say: look what I'm doing, or look what she is doing. Ask questions, they will take you much further. And secondly, before leaving Mount Holyoke, ask yourself: what surprised you in the course of your education, what discoveries have you made, what most gripped you, where and with whom were you most engaged? These are touchstones to take with you, surfaces to rub future choices against to see if they meet your gold standard.
Let me end on a personal note. When I graduated from college, I had no idea of the work I would subsequently do. I had no inkling I would write about women. I never dreamed I would write a novel. When I first submitted the essay, "In a Different Voice" for publication, it was rejected. We don't know what this is, I was told. And that got my back up. So I added some headings and submitted it again, and then they wanted me to change the style. But I had been an English major, and I knew that I couldn't write about a different voice without writing in a different voice. So we went back and forth.
What I learned from these experiences is that in leaving college you don't have to know, in fact you cannot know how the rest your life will unfold. The difficulty with life choices, as one eleven-year-old girl told me, describing her quandary over whether or not to go to camp for the summer, is that "you've got to choose but you'll never know," what would have happened had you chosen differently. I discovered that rejection is not the end of the world; the sky doesn't fall, but it's good to get mad, to persist, and to stand up for yourself and your work. Any creative work involves risk; it's a leap into the unknown. As a student once said to me, it's like "moving in darkness," you have to feel your way.
I have watched our society become increasingly obsessed with success, narrowly defined, and rank everything from restaurants to hospitals, often without asking who is to say. This makes it much harder to take risks or to falter, especially when every move you make is captured and stored on the Internet. What this means is you will have to work harder or go farther to find places and relationships that protect and foster creativity. It's also true that as women, we have to be especially on guard against what I have come to think of as the virginity paradigm: the notion that one mistake, one false move, and everything is lost.
In my novel, Kyra, one of the characters, a therapist named Greta, says that it was in working with women that she came to realize that the impediments to healing are not just internal. Living in this world, women have learned to adapt to structures not of their own making, and this adaptation has to be confronted and challenged. In one way or another, a woman needs to discover that she has the power to change the situation in which she finds herself. And this discovery often marks a turning point in women's lives. It is also key to women's education.
Writing about the tension between force and freedom in the nineteenth century, Jacob Burkhardt reflected on a civilization he saw heading toward chaos, toward the wars and the despotism of the twentieth century. He saw the need to recognize the chaos, to observe and describe it, warn about it and learn from it. But he did not "believe people are made better and wiser by continually staring into chaos." Instead, he tried to "preserve good humor and sleep at night."
And so I say to you--spirited women of the class of 2008: engage with the pressing issues of your time, recognize the chaos that surrounds you, see where force is used and freedom suppressed, and also listen for the honest voice within yourself, listen to your body and pay attention to your feelings--they will alert you to false relationship and false authority; connect your mind with your heart, take the risk of doing the work you want to do, risk love and value friendship, savor joy and the pleasures of life, and in the midst of it all, preserve your sense of humor and sleep at night.
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