I’m very proud to be any part of this devotion to social justice on these two campuses. I consider myself now part of the Hobart and Wilhelmina Smith family and permanently bonded to the class of 1998. Friends; brothers and sisters; President Hersh and all the administrators of these fine colleges; faculty with tenure; faculty without tenure; all the employees of these campuses, especially those who planned and worked and put up the chairs and worried about the rain for this ceremony; parents of graduates, relatives of graduates, nuclear families, blended families, communal families, and everyone else who helped pay the bills; friends and lovers of graduates (you know who you are); and anyone who just dropped by to watch because, like me, you are graduation "junkies"; but, most of all, each and every member of the great, the one, the only, the fan-f***ing-tastic class of 1998, whose good hands and great hearts are going to knock the world on its ear; I want to thank you for allowing me to share this great day with you, because I really am addicted to graduations. More universal than christenings and bas mitzvahs, more permanent than marriages, and certainly more fun than funerals, they truly do mark the end of the beginning without coming anywhere near the beginning of the end.
But lest you fear this great honor has gone to my head, let me assure you of a note of reality, because, try as I might, I have been unable to remember who my commencement speaker was. I was too busy feeling terminally sentimental about leaving college and worrying about what I would do next and also worrying if my friends would like my family and vice versa and if I could pack four years worth of belongings into one car. Now, I realize that much has changed between your graduation and mine. In the 1950s there was not even a nationally recognized civil rights movement, much less a women’s movement or a gay and lesbian movement, and only the beginnings of an environmental movement which was focused solely on nuclear fallout. Those of us of an age here remember Strontium-90. Now, of course, you assume all of these. And, not only that, but you have African-American history, women’s studies, Native-American studies and everything that might better be called remedial studies if we’re ever going to study truly human history.
As I waited at the airport last night I realized that when I graduated there were no metal detectors. Now metal detectors are set off by belly buttons and tongues. But one thing that has not changed, right along with blue jeans and Senator Strom Thurman, is that commencement speakers still want to help you on your way and you still hope that it will be brief. So, I’m going to list a variety of things that I wish devoutly that someone had said to me, any one of which could be a speech. But, rest assured it will not. It will be condensed. I leave it to you to pour water on it and turn it into a speech.
First, I hope you remember that education is not only outside in, but also inside out. That is, I hope that yours has given you more faith than mine did. There is a unique person inside each one of us. A combination of millennia, heredity, and environment combined in such a way that could never have happened before and could never happen again. Any person who has ever met a baby knows that there is already a person in that baby. Well, there is one in each of us, too, and in each of you, a uniqueness that will always be there. Trust your interests. Trust your instincts. Do what you can uniquely do. Do what gives you joy, what you love so much you would do it whether you got paid or not. Trust your own inner voice.
Second, remember that what all five senses experience is even more important than what we learn in lectures, what we see on the Internet, or what we read in books. A corollary of this is that anybody who has experienced something is probably more expert in it than the experts. Another corollary is that any process administered only by experts without anyone who has actually experienced the problem will probably go wrong.
Third, folks like Marx and Machiavelli may have been smart about a lot of things, but they weren’t being smart when they said that "the ends justify the means." In fact, the means are the ends. The means we choose dictate the ends we achieve, which is why we can’t use violence on children and expect children not to be violent, or have slogans like "Kill for Peace," or create strength in people by telling people what to do, or have a truly democratic nation without starting with democratic families, or start a group that is inclusive unless it is inclusive when it starts, or have a revolution that leads to love and poetry and music and humor without revolutionary tactics that include love and poetry and music and humor.
Fourth, hierarchal thinking is usually part of the problem, not part of the solution. Indeed, you can’t create a strong coalition by making a hierarchy. There should be no competition of tears. For example, the question is not which is more important, racism or sexism, but how they are interdependent, and how only working against both can defeat and uproot either one of them. After all, the maintenance of racial purity, or difference, which is necessary to maintaining racist systems themselves in the long-run, means that women’s freedom has been restricted because women’s bodies are the most basic means of production -- the means of reproduction. The idea that one group is born inferior to another usually comes in the family first, from ideas of gender. And, if we will believe this about people so close to us, so dear to us, how much easier is it to believe about a stranger, of a different ethnicity or a different race?
Five, remember, historically, racism was a complete, utter, total invention to justify taking over land -- indeed whole continents and creating unpaid or underpaid labor, just as sexism was a complete, utter, total invention to justify controlling reproduction and creating an unpaid or underpaid labor force. Neither is going to be undone truly until its justification is gone, until we find ways to redistribute the land and other assets, and until women decide for ourselves when and whether to have children as well as to be equal owners and equal earners. In other words, a percentage pay increase to everybody is great, but when it comes on top of a pinkcollar ghetto -- like say, clerical workers -- it does nothing to chip away at the structural injustice. I know this college is devoted to changing this. This faculty is devoted to changing this, and these workers are devoted to changing this.
Don’t get discouraged. Remember that everything we do matters -- even the words we choose, the language we use. For instance, if we never again speak of homemakers as women who don’t work when homemakers work longer hours for less pay than any other class of workers. Indeed there is not even legal pay, but room and board and "What did you do with the $50 I gave you yesterday?" We will have helped to change consciousness about what work is and what work is important. If we stop devaluing child rearing as if it were only a feminine concern, and treating politics and foreign policy as if they were a masculine concern we will stop condemning ourselves to failure when we fail to see the origins of democracy or totalitarianism in different modes of child rearing. I ask you, Where is the discussion of family and child rearing as the root of political forms in our newspapers, by our news commentators, or even in our political science courses?
If the language of either/or diminishes and the language of and increases, we will have opened up a whole world of new connections and possibilities because the art of behaving ethically and effectively is behaving as if everything we do matters. I wish someone had told me that, because everything we do does matter. Remember the laws of connectedness. Remember that we are still connected, for instance, to Toni Flores, whose first graduation away from us this is. Remember that the flap of a butterfly’s wing here can change the weather hundreds of miles away. Think of the power that it gives each of us in each of our actions, in each of our choices.
You who are young will dwell in the land of the future, where I and most of us here cannot go. Your past self will always be here. I hope that you come and visit it. Our hearts and our hopes go with you and I just want you to remember that, if that flap of a butterfly’s wing can change the weather, then as you go out in the world the Class of 1998 makes one hell of a butterfly!
Thank you. Good luck. We’ll be together no matter where you are.
Commencement Address by Gloria Steinem
June 14, 1998