Carol Gilligan Delivers 171st Commencement Address

Posted: May 25, 2008

Celebrating the school's 171st commencement, 578 Mount Holyoke College women received degrees Sunday, May 25, and enthusiastically accepted a challenge from commencement speaker Carol Gilligan to start "a new conversation about gender, one that transcends the old animosities and resists old categories."

A celebratory, standing-room-only crowd of family and friends gathered under picture-perfect skies in Gettell Ampitheater to loudly cheer the graduate's accomplishments and hear from Gilligan and three other honorary degree recipients, as well as student speaker Sally Brzozowski.

"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. This discovery often marks a turning point in women's lives; it is a vital part of women's education," said Gilligan, University Professor at New York University, noted psychologist, and author of In a Different Voice, a groundbreaking work on gender differences.

The Class of 2008 is "graduating from college at an historic moment in American history," with both a woman and an African American as viable candidates to become president of the United States, according to Gilligan. "This is the legacy of the 1960s, although at the time it would have seemed like a dream," she said. Still, racism and sexism have "dogged this election," she added.

Citing Barack Obama's recent candid campaign speech on race, "The comparable speech about gender remains to be written," she said. "I see this now as the challenge of women's education…. Women's colleges must lead a new conversation about gender."

Gilligan's speech was briefly interrupted by the noise of a jet passing overhead. "See what happens when you talk about this?" she joked, drawing applause and appreciative laughter from the audience.

Student speaker Sally Brzozowski framed her charge to her classmates around a favorite Mount Holyoke tradition, Mountain Day.

"Will you hike in the footsteps of the Mount Holyoke women of the past and gaze out at the same landscape from the hill that we claim as our namesake, or will you make a new adventure and start a tradition that includes a view that no one has even seen before?" she asked. "You're fully equipped to blaze your own trail, and now there's nothing holding you back.

"Our four years at Mount Holyoke have prepared us for greatness, they have prepared us to take on the unknown, and we have prepared ourselves to accept this challenge. Our day is coming, and we're ready for it."

Honorary degree recipient and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree told the audience his award was not for him, but rather for the grandmothers who had no opportunity to experience what he has, and for his mother who grew up in the segregated world of the Jim Crow south. It was also, he said, for his daughter and granddaughters, who will know no such limits in their lives.

Quoting scripture, Ogletree called upon the graduates to answer life's call to action: "Stand wherever you are in the world and say, 'Here I am; send me!'"

In presenting an honorary degree to mathematician Mary W. Gray, President Joanne V. Creighton praised her "commitment to advancing the cause of women and minorities (by transcending) the traditional boundaries of your field," and noted Gray's research has "exposed patterns of human and institutional behavior invisible to the casual observer."

Gray reminded the graduates it is not enough to be educated and talented. "Never forget (any discipline) that can be used for the good can be used for the opposite. Remember that efficient statistical registries facilitated the genocide of World War II."

Creighton called honorary degree recipient Harriet Levine Weissman '58 "an articulate champion of students and an impassioned advocate for the College."

"In your decade-long service on the board, you could always be counted on for deep engagement, uncommon wisdom, and natural leadership," she said. "Words cannot adequately convey the enrichment you have brought to our lives."

Weissman, in turn, praised the graduates and shared her impressions of the time she has spent with MHC students during her 10 years as a trustee of the College.

"Invariably, I came away from such meetings with a hopeful belief in the future- knowing these determined young people would inevitably have a positive effect on the world," she said. Referencing the late Wendy Wasserstein '71, she added, "If ever the world needed uncommon women, it is now."

Related Links:

Commencement Address
Carol Gilligan

Commencement Address
Sally Brzozowski '08

Honorary Degree Citation
Carol Gilligan

Honorary Degree Citation
Harriet L. Weissman '58

Honorary Degree Address
Harriet L. Weissman '58

Honorary Degree Citation
Mary W. Gray

Honorary Degree Address
Mary W. Gray

Honorary Degree Citation
Charles Ogletree

Class of 2008 Baccalaureate Service

MHC Alums Cheer Class of 2008 at Laurel Parade

Commencement 2008 Photo Galleries