Lynn Pasquerella, President of Mount Holyoke College
Taking It Personally
Welcome to our extraordinary class of 2016, to the spectacular class of 2015, our amazing class of 2014, our stunning seniors—the class of 2013, our remarkable FPs, to all of our alumnae here today, and to our dedicated and talented faculty and staff. My very first trip to meet alumnae after my appointment as Mount Holyoke’s eighteenth president occurred two months before my official start date. It was a visit to Seattle, where I had dinner with a group of recent graduates and caught a Mariners game with our distinguished alumna Nancy Nordhoff. Before leaving town, I bought a Sleepless in Seattle nightgown in the hotel gift shop. I’ve mentioned to many of you on various occasions that Nora Ephron’s film is one of my favorites, and there is a scene from the movie that reminds me of Mount Holyoke every time I watch it. Tom Hanks’s character, Sam, is describing the magic of falling in love and reveals to a radio talk-show psychologist, “It was like going home, only to no home I had ever known.” This is exactly how I felt the first time I stepped onto Mount Holyoke’s campus. It was like magic. I knew instantly that I was just where I belonged, though it was radically different from any other experience in my life.
When Nora Ephron died earlier this summer, I went back to read several of her works one more time, beginning with her collection of stories, Crazy Salad, which was assigned in a class I took here on Women and Moral Rights. From the significance of breast size and the rapid demise of the first woman umpire to the impact of feminism on sex and the mysteries of feminine hygiene products, Ephron used wit and sarcasm to paint a portrait of feminism in the 70s. A decade later, when she rewrote the introduction to her book, she marveled at how so much of what happened in the early 1970s seemed to have been undone, and how so much of what ought to have happened since simply hadn’t. The “crazy salad” to which she refers is lifted from a poem by Yeats, and for Ephron it is comprised of the “mistakes, the contradictions, the counterproductiveness, and the glorious mess of it all.” I laughed out loud at her reflections in this and other of her notable works like Heartburn, but the piece I found most compelling was her 1996 commencement speech given at Wellesley, her alma mater.
Ephron reminded the graduates that despite enormous gains, the pay differential between men and women persisted, that while there was an increase in female directors, making a movie about women was as difficult as it ever was, and that though many of her contemporaries had successful personal and professional lives, the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of her classmates were still lurking in the background. She asked them not to underestimate how much antagonism there still is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. She says, “One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged.”
She’s right, and her words are perhaps even more critical today than they were in 1996. When I was headed to Kenya this past summer to continue my work there with communities near Lake Victoria, our plane was diverted to Cairo when a young man from Uganda, who was next to me, began hemorrhaging. Four doctors who happened to be traveling on board the plane worked valiantly to prevent disaster. The doctor who took charge and conveyed the measures taken to the team on the ground likely saved this man’s life, and yet as she was talking, it occurred to me that there are still places in the world in which she would need her father’s or husband’s permission to travel and would have to be accompanied in order to drive or be seen in public. We should all take it personally when social and political realities deny women full participation in the public sphere. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, we should take it personally when legislators attempt to prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, thus eliminating a number of advances for women’s health and jeopardizing the availability of breast and cervical cancer screening for low-income women. And, each of us should take it personally when trolls enter the Confessional and attempt to undermine the value and worth of any member of our community because of how she, he, or zhe looks, thinks or acts.
This year, Mount Holyoke is celebrating 175 years of women of influence. What these and other alumnae have in common is the experience of acquiring a liberal education at Mount Holyoke that not only enabled them to develop a voice, but to use that voice to transform the world. The dominant social norms that traversed the decades and centuries in which they lived encouraged women to keep quiet and listen rather than speak, to be empathetic rather than critical, to be caring rather than aggressive, and to be collaborative and consensus building rather than authoritarian and autocratic. Paradoxically, these very same characteristics often make women more effective than their male counterparts as leaders, while at the same time inhibiting some women by preventing them from taking a place at the table, exercising their voices and, when necessary, making noise.
Following Ephron’s enjoinder to take things personally is not enough. We have to act to promote change where we believe it is necessary to meet the demands of social justice. We need to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making. Mount Holyoke educates women for purposeful engagement in the world, including political engagement. By the time you leave Mount Holyoke, I am confident that each and every one of you will have the skills necessary to make a real difference in arguing for whatever cause motivates you, and through the support and mentoring from your faculty, staff and peers, you will have the courage to do so.
This year, make sure to take full advantage of all the College has to offer—work hard, have fun, take time to visit me during my open office hours, and when necessary, make some noise!