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Inaugural Keynote Address

Debora L. Spar

The inauguration of Debora L. Spar, the eleventh leader of Barnard College, took place on Thursday, October 23, 2008. The doors of Riverside Church opened at 1 p.m. The formal procession and ceremony will began at 2 p.m. Once the ceremony concluded, guests were invited to follow the recession that President Debora Spar led to Claremont Avenue, south of 119th Street, where the inaugural reception took place.


Ladies and gentlemen; students, faculty, and staff of Barnard; members of the board and cherished alumnae; colleagues from Columbia and around the world; family and friends—I can not tell you how delighted I am to be here with you today, and to have you sharing this day with me. Your presence and support are a tremendous joy.


In 1887, a small group of determined women decided to create a college for women in New York—a goal they described as being akin to "an enchanting castle-in-Spain … at once utterly desirable and tragically impossible."

Led by the unswerving Annie Nathan Meyer (who was only 20 at the time), these women embarked upon the adventure that became Barnard for many reasons: to allow women to attend lectures that were then only open to men; to enable them to listen to these lectures without actually being in the presence of men; and to grant women the dignity of a degree.

What lay behind all these reasons, though, was the simple fact that the women of New York had few choices. They couldn’t attend Amherst or Columbia; they couldn’t start their own businesses; they couldn’t get the education required to enter medicine or the law.

Meyer and her little band burst into this world and made it change. From a rented townhouse on Madison Avenue, they created a haven where women could study Latin and math; where they learned the skills that allowed them to prosper and nourished the life of their minds. These women—like Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance; Helen Ranney, the first American woman to chair a university department of medicine; and Margaret Mead, one of the most important anthropologists in the history of the discipline—graduated from Barnard and seized the world.

They proved, from the evidence of their own lives, that there was nothing that women could not do—alongside men, as well as men, and usually in heels.


These women of Barnard’s past live on in the Barnard students of today; in women like Amy Johnson, who is majoring in anthropology and hoping to do research in Nepal next fall. Or first-year Yisa Fermin, who has already performed in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and launched a radio show called "Follow the White Rabbit."

Indeed, the spirit of Barnard’s pioneers empowers and embraces all the women congregated in this glorious church today: the students, the alumnae, the faculty, the parents, the staff. Yet there is a critical distinction between these earlier generations and the Barnard students of today, a distinction that needs to be underscored and probed and celebrated.

This is the distinction of choice.

Because the women who come to Barnard in 2008 are no longer constrained, as Hurston and Ranney and Mead were, by the shackles of society. They can go to Amherst and Columbia; they can become lawyers and doctors and senators and film-makers. They are here—we are here—therefore, not as a result of limits but through the liberty of choice; the liberty of choosing women’s education not because it is the only option for women but because it is the preferred one.

For centuries, women lived lives of limits. They married the men their families selected; they had their babies when Mother Nature dictated; they obeyed the hidebound rules of their fathers, their husbands, their towns. Their realm of freedom was no wider than the window that confronted them at birth. Women’s lives were defined by biology, by tradition, by the wants and whims of others. But never, nearly ever, by choice.

Today, by contrast, women are surrounded by choice. Thanks to the generation of women who protested at Seneca Falls, women in the United States now have the right to choose those who will govern them. Thanks to pioneers like Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick, women have not only the right to control their reproductive lives, but the ability to do so as well.

And thanks to the feminist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s, to the writers and activists who marched into the workplace and demanded their place within it, women today can run law firms and hospitals, urban development agencies and theater companies.

They can get married, or not; have children, or not; pursue a profession, or not. Rather than facing a life devoid of options, women coming of age at the turn of the 21st century have an almost infinite range of choices, a lifetime of wandering along the garden of the forked path and wondering which way to go.

This is the distinction of choice. It is what differentiates the women of Barnard’s past from the women of its future, and indeed what differentiates most women today from the millions who have come before them. Amy and Yisa did not matriculate at Barnard because they had no options; they came because they chose to come. And if they marry in the future, or become mothers, they will do so from the exercise of their own free will, rather than as a response to others’ wishes or demands.

These are the choices that feminism and modernity have created for women; the choices that have catapulted women from a life characterized by the “feminine mystique” to what might be labeled the "feminine boutique."

And I’m not referring here just to shoes.


In 1963, Betty Friedan shocked the complacency of post-war American society with the publication of The Feminine Mystique, a searing investigation of what she described as the “quiet desperation” that had settled over millions of apparently comfortable women. According to Friedan, many women were struggling with a sadness that came from pursuing what they thought was the feminine ideal. Married young, and devoted to their husbands and children, they found themselves mysteriously and miserably unhappy, dissatisfied with their days, their desires, and with what had happened to their dreams.

These women were far removed from the troubles that had plagued their forebears. They had choices in theory and by law; and small groups of them were running with these choices and grabbing slivers of newfound freedom. Yet still Friedan found, many women were shackled, tied to decisions they hadn’t intended to make, and furtively asking themselves the silent question: "Is this all?"

Within five years of Friedan’s clarion call, however, social forces were racing to transform the world she had described. By the early 1970s, widespread acceptance of the birth-control pill meant that women could finally take control of their reproductive lives, separating procreation from pleasure and choosing the terms under which to engage in each. In 1973, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade pushed this separation even further, adding the choice of abortion – an option so profound as to become henceforth glued to the very word of "choice."

In 1968, 1969, and 1970, women fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and then surged on the power of their activism into realms closer to home: medicine, law, university faculties, and factory floors.

As these women and these changes rippled across contemporary society, they dismantled the feminine mystique that Friedan had described and demanded in its stead a permanent state of choice: the choice of whom to marry; the choice of whether to marry; the choice of children; the choice of sexuality; the choice of co-education; the choice of career.

In 1968, 62 percent of young women had expected to become housewives by the time they were 35. By 1979, that number had plummeted to 20 percent. Today, over 65 percent of the Barnard graduating class goes directly on to full-time employment. Roughly 20 percent headed off to graduate school in 2008; and 5 percent to travel or volunteer.

This is not the Barnard of the 1890s, opening its doors to women with no other educational options; not even the Barnard of the 1950s or 1960s, spitting most of its graduates into the mysterious limbo that Friedan described.

Instead, this is the feminine boutique. This is the distinction of choice.

In this world, choice is no longer a luxury restricted to the rich, or the male, or the white, or the powerful, but instead an increasingly abundant commodity, part of an ever evolving marketplace of options.


The meanings of this change are profound.

For now, when women come to Barnard, they are consciously selecting an all-women’s college rather than a co-educational university. When women go to medical school, or become lawyers, they are consciously selecting these career paths instead of the multitude of others available to them. When women choose a partner to share their lives or a time to procreate, they are consciously selecting aspects of their life that were once far beyond their control.

There are immense benefits to all these freedoms, of course, but also costs as well; costs that are difficult to grapple with but critical to understand.

For Barnard, the advent of choice brings the necessity of re-definition. Because once women can go to co-educational institutions, women’s colleges have to give their students new reasons to attend; a new philosophy and new bodies of evidence that allow young women to choose single-sex education, not because they don’t have options, but precisely because they do. These reasons and this evidence include some aspects of single-sex education that are already well-known: the greater likelihood of obtaining a graduate degree, for example, and the higher level of participation in fields traditionally dominated by men.

But there are also subtler reasons, like confidence and camaraderie and compassion. Or as so many Barnard alumnae and students have expressed it to me: "Being surrounded by women, and supported by women, gave me the courage to go out and follow my dreams."

In a world where young people are bombarded from middle-school on by the drum roll of college-prep courses and magazine rankings, the challenge for Barnard is not only to trumpet the virtues of women’s education but also to understand these virtues as deeply as we can and to share them with women across society and around the world.

The challenge for our students, meanwhile, is even greater. Because they are the ones who must stand every day before the offerings of the feminine boutique, absorbing the vast array of options with which it now presents them. Want to stay single instead of marrying that guy you’ve been seeing for three years? Of course you can. Want to apply for a joint PhD-MD degree in neuroscience? Why not? How about a year off trekking in Ladakh? Absolutely. Want one kid? Three kids? Two boys followed by a brown-haired girl?

Yes. You can.

But choice also means the responsibility to choose. To decide what you want to do and who you want to be.

The women of my generation came of age in what was in retrospect a very brief and oddly shining moment. It was the moment after the pill and the riots of the late 1960s; a moment when it truly seemed as if women could have it all: the husband and the career, the children, the ideals, the money, and the shoes. We thought we could have all the choices of the boutique without ever having to choose.

By contrast, women of the current generation know better. They know that the feminine boutique entails not just choices but choosing. Not just opportunity, but responsibility. If women want all the wonders that the boutique presents to them, then they must learn—we all must learn—how to accept responsibility for our choices, and how to consciously craft lives of meaning.

The generations before us fought for our options and constructed the boutique that we inherit.

Our job now is to shoulder the obligation that comes with choice. If we can do whatever we want with our lives, then we need to build lives that matter. If we can shape and change the world, then we must.


Over the next few years, my goal will be to take the work that Barnard’s faculty and staff have been doing brilliantly over the past several decades; the work that was led with grace and passion by my predecessors, Ellen Futter and Judith Shapiro, and push it even further, probing to understand both the options that women now face and their capacity to choose and maneuver among them.

With this goal in sight, I hope for instance to expand Barnard’s presence outside the United States, allowing the college to play a more active role in a world increasingly dominated by the international exchange of capital, technology, people and ideas.

We know that women play a critical role in economic development. Women build the social capital of their communities; engage in entrepreneurial activity; and provide financial stability for their families. Yet all too often women in developing nations are constrained by their lack of access to education.

Barnard can, and should, play some role in addressing this gap, bringing what we know about women’s education to the women who need it most, and exposing our own students to the complex realities of the global economy. Over the next few years, we will therefore be embarking on an ambitious series of international programs, designed to send more of our students and faculty abroad, to bring more international visitors to campus, and to grow the number of international students among us.

Meanwhile, we will also be working to leverage one of the most important resources we have: our faculty. The men and women who teach at Barnard College are an extraordinary group. Because they are at Barnard, by definition they have a deep-seated commitment to undergraduate teaching and a profound devotion to their students. They teach in very small classes and work closely with dozens of young women each year. At the same time, though, because of Barnard’s partnership with Columbia, our faculty also participate in the life and obligations of a world-class research university, teaching graduate courses, sponsoring doctoral dissertations, and engaging in large-scale research projects. It is a heady combination, giving our faculty a breadth of expertise unmatched in the academic world.

But such a Janus-faced existence can also be exhausting, robbing teachers and scholars of the time they need to develop their teaching and scholarship. If we want our faculty to thrive in the ambitious endeavor that is Barnard, we need to ensure that they have the resources and time that intellectual rigor demands. Accordingly, I am delighted to announce that we have received seed money for the next four years to launch a Presidential Research Fund. Under its auspices, we will award $100,000 a year in dedicated research funds to our faculty, who can use the monies to pursue their research at home or abroad, through whatever methodologies are most relevant to their scholarly agenda. My goal is to build this research fund over time, expanding our faculty’s research and its impact upon our students, the academy, and the world.

Finally, over the next few years, we are planning to build an innovative program in a liberal-arts setting, a program devoted entirely to the theory and practice of women’s leadership.

We know that women today are entering leadership positions in unprecedented numbers. They are running movie studios and hospitals, political campaigns, humanitarian organizations, and universities. We used to pray that such progress would occur, and presumed that women leaders, once they got there, would act pretty much like men. Now, however, we face a different and more intriguing landscape; a landscape that suggests that women can lead as well as men, and as frequently as men, but perhaps through subtly different channels and with different styles.

The goal of the Barnard Leadership Institute will be to understand women’s distinctive leadership styles and to provide Barnard women with the skills and experience they need to pursue their own paths of leadership.

In true Barnard fashion, the programs launched by this initiative will be multifaceted and interdisciplinary. They will draw from the academic expertise that surrounds us in Morningside Heights, but also from the wealth of experience and wisdom that are found in this extraordinary city and from the lessons in leadership provided— sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes quietly and anonymously— by women around the world.


It is a fascinating time to choose to be at Barnard.

College applications are at an all-time high; women constitute nearly half of all medical and law school students; and we are witnessing an unprecedented national election—one that has seen women come closer than ever before to reaching the White House and one that may see our country’s first African-American president.

The young women who sit with us here today face lives of unparalleled opportunity. They will have the chance to define the lives they want to lead and to pursue their own paths toward excellence. Their job is to choose carefully and wisely.

My job is to ensure that the women who come to Barnard receive all the advantages of choice; that they leave here even stronger and more beautiful than they were before, ready to tackle the world and change the world and choose excellence in all they do.

Thank you for being here today. Thank you for supporting me; for supporting Barnard; and for making choices that matter in the world. I look forward to working with you in the months and years to come.