2008 Convocation

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 - 17:00

Convocation Address

Joanne V. Creighton
President

September 3, 2008

Good morning! I'm pleased to give greetings and to officially open the 172nd year of this venerable and beloved institution. It's great to welcome you back or to welcome you anew. Let me extend a special welcome to all new members of the faculty, staff, and students, especially the newly arrived class of 2012 and new transfer, FP, and foreign fellows. And then, let me give extra special acknowledgment of the senior class, the most august class of 2009.

Right now, of course, it is 2008, and you still have some breathing room, class of 2009. Much will happen between now and May. In fact, much is happening in the world around us. I know I speak for all of us basking on this perfect New England day in saying our hearts go out to all the people dealing with destruction and devastation of yet another Gulf storm. And then another happening likely to reshape the world is the U.S. general election. I'd like to focus on that today.

I have basically a simply message. It is encapsulated in the slogan of an advocacy group called the White House Project: "Go vote, run, lead. Go girl!" In other words, the goal is to get women involved in politics as voters, candidates, and leaders.

The opportunity to vote, run, and lead is not something that women can take for granted. You, the young women coming of age in the twenty-first century, are the lucky ones. You benefit from the struggles and good work of generations of women who came before you. As you know, for most of human history, women were denied education and suffrage, let alone leadership and power. Here at the oldest women's college in the world, we know that women's higher education is less than two centuries old. Women's suffrage has an even shorter vintage than that. New Zealand has the honor of being the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed by 17 other countries before the U.S. finally got around to it. A sustained effort to secure suffrage for women in this country was initiated in 1848 at the convention on women's rights in Seneca Falls, New York, but it took over seven decades and a tortuous history before the nineteenth amendment finally passed in 1920.

Of course, many of the greats of this College, starting with Mary Lyon, could not vote. Frances Perkins, as a student at the turn of the century, was an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage. So too was President Mary Woolley, who could not vote for the first 20 years of her presidency. The student debating society addressed women's suffrage several times, and you might be surprised to know that support for it was not universal. Despite the revolutionary spirit that infused this College, there was across its history also a conservative view held by some faculty, students, trustees, and even a president who believed that women's place was primarily in the home. Nonetheless, the suffrage movement gained momentum and support, and Mount Holyoke students and faculty marched in suffrage parades in Boston and Springfield in 1914 and '15. Here, as elsewhere in the country and around the world, blood, sweat and tears were shed and great fortitude and persistence were needed in the face of humiliation, patronization, belittlement, and failure during those 70 long years of struggle to get the right to vote.

So, here we are in the twenty-first century, 88 years after the passing of the nineteenth amendment. How have women fared in the country and in the world in terms of voting, running, and leading? In some ways, there's a good story to tell. Now, only one country in the world, Saudi Arabia, does not have universal suffrage, although in too many countries, such as the recent example of Zimbabwe, voting and democracy are a sham. But more shocking to me is that in this country so many women typically do not vote. In 2004, 22 million eligible women voters did not vote. In fact, only 56 percent did and less than 35 percent of women 18-24 years old did. I wonder what Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would think of that?

Are women so blasé because equity and power sharing between men and women have been achieved? Not at all. Out of 180 countries in the world, only 11 have elected women heads of state. When will the U.S. have one? Will she be a Mount Holyoke woman? Why not?

With women filling only 16 percent of seats in Congress, the United States ranks abyssmally sixty-eighth in the world behind Rwanda, China, and Sierra Leone. Alas, only one woman sits on the nine-member Supreme Court. Do women do better at running and leading in other sectors? No. Take business for example. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only 2 percent (10 of 500) are headed by women. Women are dramatically underrepresented in certain fields such as science and engineering. Four decades after the Equal Pay Act, women earn on average 77 cents of their male counterparts. I could go on and talk about how much the world needs well educated women leaders to join with men to address pressing world issues: global warming, economic instability, geopolitical tensions and violence, hunger and disease, and myriad other problems.

Indeed, the great unfinished agenda of the twenty-first century is that educational opportunity for girls and women in some parts of the world is nothing short of bleak, as is their access to fundamental rights and human dignity. Seventy percent of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty are women and children; 67 percent of all illiterate adults are female; 1,440 women die in childbirth every day--one every minute.

Would more women in political and other positions of power help to address these issues? More than likely, although I don't mean to imply that gender in itself guarantees anything, including wisdom. We need smart, compassionate, and capable people--women and men--to help us to move beyond the gender, class, and racial divisions that have polarized our world and limited our capacity for growth as an enlightened global community. Do you personally have an obligation to share in this agenda? Yes, you do. We're counting on you: go girl! Or should I say, go, Mount Holyoke women! That obligation, in fact, is enacted in the rituals and traditions of this College.

Sooner than you think possible, class of 2009, you will dress in white and join with reunion-celebrating Mount Holyoke women from across the decades in the laurel parade. As you march, you will carry on your collective shoulders a laurel chain which you will wind around Mary Lyon's grave singing "Bread and Roses." This event is full of symbolism, obviously. In it, you will be linked to all the generations of impressive, pioneering Mount Holyoke women who came before you extending right back to the founder, Mary Lyon. As they have marched before you, you in turn are obligated to lead those who come after you. "Great privilege brings great responsibility," said Mary Lyon. You will wear white not to signify virginity (you might be happy to know), but to express solidarity with the suffragettes and their struggles for both women's right to vote and for the rights and better working conditions of mill workers in early twentieth-century America. In the haunting final stanza of this 1911 song, you will sing:

As we go marching, marching,
we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means
all humankind we raise.
No more the drudge and idler --
ten toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories:
Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

Through this song and through this ritual, you will be expressing your commitment to carry on the struggle for equality and human rights, and you will be paying homage to suffragettes the world over whose hard-won privileges you enjoy.

So, in November, if you are a U.S. citizen, out of respect for all those suffragettes, you had better vote! And throughout your time at Mount Holyoke, you had better engage fully in the life of the College, so that you may partake of the generating energies and the intellectual power of this place built for and of and by and about women.

I urge all of you here today--students, faculty, and staff--to vote on November 4, and meanwhile may you all have a very productive and enjoyable year with a sharing of life's glories, including bread and roses, bread and roses. As for some bread, I invite you to join us for lunch immediately after this event.

My best wishes to you all!

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