Cynthia Nixon '88, Remarks as Delivered
Hello and good afternoon.
Greetings to all the faculty, administrators, and staff assembled here. Greetings to the parents, to the families and to the friends who have come to witness and to celebrate. But most especially of course, greetings and huzzahs to you — the Barnard alums of the Classes of 2020 and 2021! Welcome to this long overdue, richly deserved moment.
And while the protracted distance between the end of your education here and this capstone event may make today feel a bit anticlimactic, I hope it makes it something else as well: more — for lack of a better word — experience-able.
Today’s ceremony isn’t all jumbled up with the exhaustion of your freshly finished final exams or the anticipated slog of moving out of the dorms or the flurry of parties and goodbyes and excitement and trepidation about your post-college life starting.
Your post-collegiate lives are well underway. And today is a homecoming of sorts. I’m hoping this separation, this pause, will give you fuller clarity to see and appreciate all that your Barnard experience was and to truly feel the magnitude of what you achieved and all the obstacles, COVID included, that you overcame to be here.
I vaguely remember the day I graduated, but it is mostly something of a blur. It was 1988.
Thirty-four years ago. Literally the last century.
It was a Wednesday morning. I only remember that because I was appearing downtown at the Public Theatre (i.e., the NYSF) as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and we had a two o’clock matinee.
My mother came to the graduation. And my stepfather. And my godmother. And after the ceremony, my little posse and I went down into the subway and my mom snapped a picture of me in my graduation robes and umbrella (it was raining) in the 116th Street station heading off to my matinee.
After the curtain came down on the matinee and before our evening show, Joseph Papp — the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival — and the cast and crew had a little celebration for me. Joe Papp gave me his newly published collection of the complete plays of Shakespeare and a huge cake on which was written a line from Romeo and Juliet: “Oh what learning is!” The hilarious Anne Meara, who would later play my mother-in-law on Sex and the City, was playing Juliet’s nurse, and “Oh what learning is” was her line, so Joe Papp asked her to come up and read the cake. Our production was in previews and running too long and because of that we were suffering through a barrage of cuts to the text. And Anne Meara, always quick on her feet, said, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid to go up there and read my line because I’m afraid that after I read it, somebody’s going to cut it!” It’s my main memory of the day.
The only thing I remember about the actual ceremony itself — apart from the fact that as I said it was raining and the audience was a sea of umbrellas and raincoats — was that in the aftermath I spotted my revered political science professor Dennis Dalton in the crowd and excitedly — and I hoped subtly — asked my mother to take a picture of my idol in his scholar’s robes. You can tell from the snapshot that he has some awareness that he is having his picture taken covertly by a paparazzi mother and is looking into the lens with a somewhat inquisitive, puzzled, and bemused expression.
Why didn’t I just go up to him directly and ask to have a picture of him with me in it? I was already somewhat of a noted actor by that time, and he wasn’t a scary or intimidating person, but that didn’t affect my ability to be starstruck and shy around this man that I admired so much.
In my freshman year, I had taken his two-semester, very-sought-after class called, unprepossessingly, Political Theory I and Political Theory II. We studied the great political philosophers, from Plato to Machiavelli to Marx to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. It was a life-changing class. One of those courses you emerge from that forever changes the way you see the world.
As we studied these great thinkers and doers, Professor Dalton kept emphasizing that the vast majority of them made their biggest impact between the ages of 18 and 30. He told us that while the wisdom and experience that comes with age has its merits, nothing can beat a fresh point of view coupled with youthful energy, optimism, and ambition.
No one had ever said anything like this to me before — that if I wanted to make an impact, my best chance to do so would be in the next 10 years. It was an overwhelming notion. But an inspiring one.
And that is the main thing that I want to talk to you about today. The world is waiting for you. It needs to hear what you think. It may not always want to hear what you think. It may not always make it cozy or comfortable for you to express yourself. In fact, often quite the opposite. But on the most basic level, the world needs it. We need it. We need you. Now more than ever.
Because — and I hate to be the one to break it to you — but things are bad. Our country and our entire planet are in trouble, and the only thing scarier than how bad things are right now is how rapidly the bad stuff seems to be growing and spreading and picking up speed. It’s hard to even know where to begin. There’s apocalyptic global warming. There’s white supremacy in all its hideous incarnations. There’s unbridled gun violence, which when coupled with white supremacy can result in the kind of devastating mass shooting we saw this past Saturday in Buffalo. There is a staggering and ever-widening economic inequality that is quickly destroying the fabric and the promise of our nation.
And just for good measure, there is a Supreme Court that’s been hijacked by a crazily conservative minority poised to repeal Roe v. Wade and make sure abortions are no longer available in at least half the country. And the intention there is not just to make abortion difficult to access but to encourage the wholesale policing, prosecution, and potential incarceration of women by any civilian who feels the urge.
I know I am preaching to the choir here, but abortion being safe, legal, and readily available is of paramount importance to everyone with a uterus being able to control not just their bodies but their very lives, so I’d like to take a moment to touch on this latest horror.
While I am not young, I am too young to remember a time when abortion was illegal anywhere in our country. But what I do remember is ever since I was old enough to understand, my mother made sure to tell me again and again about the illegal abortion she’d had before I was born. It was something she never wanted to talk about in any detail except to make sure that I knew she had done it. And that it was awful. And that we must never take this most important right for granted or stop fighting to preserve it. And here we are on the precipice of the day she warned me about.
When we think about recourses women take when abortion is illegal, we often think of back-alley butchers and women trying to abort their fetuses with wire hangers. And of course we must do everything in our power to keep people with uteruses far away from either one of those.
But what I am learning, the more I research, is that believing you have to go to a doctor for a safe abortion is a relatively new idea. Before conservatives/politicians/men/you-fill-in-the-blank succeeded in politicizing abortion and creating overly complicated, punishing medical procedures to make it a painstaking undertaking, midwives and other networks of women handled abortions in-house for quite a few centuries as part of routine management of one’s menses. In more recent history, abortions are something that activists have worked for decades to take out of the hands of lawmakers and return to women themselves. Because abortions aren’t rocket science. Or as a woman’s button I saw at a recent rally read, “Abortion is normal.”
In 1969, on the South Side of Chicago, a group of women calling themselves the Jane Collective covertly organized to provide some 11,000 illegal — but safe — abortions over a four-year period. They started by arranging safe houses and coordinating visits at them with doctors who would conduct safe illegal abortions but often for an exorbitant price. It wasn’t long before the Janes realized that not only could they learn to safely perform the procedure themselves, but once they did and they no longer had to pay the doctors, they could help many, many more women with the same amount of resources. Harriet Tubman never lost a passenger, and the Janes never lost a patient. Over time, many Chicago doctors and even Catholic priests would quietly refer patients to the Janes when their own hospitals refused to help.
The Jane Collective, which this year will see both an HBO documentary and a fictional film about them released, closed up shop with the passage of Roe in 1973. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t always been an abortion underground that waxes and wanes based on legal and political threats to abortion.
Today, you may be surprised to hear, there are underground activists who traverse abortion-desert states in covert, sometimes bulletproof vans providing safe abortions to women in states and rural areas where the nearest abortion providers may be hundreds of miles away. Because for many Americans, Roe already feels meaningless — a full 90% of counties in the U.S. lack a clinic that offers abortions.
And, of course, there are today different kinds of abortion pills you can take in the privacy of your own home. Anti-abortion states have already started making it illegal to receive those in the mail. But there is at least one pro-choice group overseas that mails abortion pills to all 50 states and over whom U.S. state governments have no jurisdiction.
There is also a device called a Del-Em, which is easy to build, easy to use, perfectly safe, and was for a time even available on Amazon, which provides a simple, painless removal of the menses or, more to the point, an early-stage pregnancy.
I am not suggesting that we all want to be roaming around in bulletproof vans or building our own homemade abortion devices, but I think it is important to consider that these things are possible and happening, and that women and others are already doing them. And that when women start taking matters back into our own hands — literally and figuratively — and take back the power to make decisions over our bodies, our environment, our country, our planet — we have the capacity to transform the world we live in.
A former Jane named Judy told the Chicago Sun-Times about her decision to break the law to save lives: “We had an obligation to disrespect a disrespectful law that disrespects women.” And to that I say, “Amen.”
But I digress. When I applied to Barnard, Columbia College had started accepting women the year before, so I applied there as well. But when I started asking people I knew at both colleges their opinion, everyone last one of them, whichever school they were affiliated with, told me to go Barnard. That Columbia was largely focused on its graduate students and Barnard — having none — would focus on us. And particularly if I needed special accommodations made because I was acting full-time, Barnard would listen. And help. And support. And she did. And I think that was in no small part because she’s a women’s institution. And she had my back.
I come from a deeply matriarchal family. My mother and my grandmother and I have all been the main breadwinners in our families. My great-grandmother Cynthia, for whom I am named, had 12 children who lived to adulthood, which bespeaks a level of female strength I can’t even conceive of. No pun intended.
My grandmother Elta was Cynthia’s eldest daughter. Elta was born in 1892 to farmers in the Missouri Ozarks. Elta felt completely responsible for her younger sisters. She was their second mother. She didn’t worry about her five brothers so much, but she saw to it that the girls all got up and got out. Elta made sure that not only she but every one of her six sisters not only went to but graduated from college, an astonishing feat in that time and that place. I know that it is almost entirely because of my grandmother that not only I but all of my hundreds of second, third, and fourth cousins have had the opportunities we’ve had.
Women who come from matriarchal families — and let’s be clear, Barnard is herself a matriarchal family — know what the world can look like when powerful women create it. And I want to live in the world created by Zora Neale Hurston. And Margaret Mead. And Maria Hinojosa. And Jhumpa Lahiri. And Greta Gerwig. And Sheila Abdus-Salaam. And Paola Ramos. And Twyla Tharp. And Suki Kim. And Joan Rivers. And June Jordan. And Dean Spade. And Laurie Anderson. And Ntozake Shange. And by all of you.
Being a Barnard graduate means that you are part of a sisterhood. A sisterhood of all the people I’ve just named and so many, many more. A sisterhood that has your back. A long and powerful matriarchal line of women who get shit done. And that’s what we need right now. We need sisterhood. We need solidarity. We need women standing up together and taking the wheel on abortion, on solving our climate crisis, on curing cancer, on you name it. We need you.
I know it sometimes seems what we are facing is insurmountable. We live in challenging times. Every week, if not every day, brings fresh, terrible news. But when things look their worst is the time when big changes can happen. It’s when people are willing to take chances. We must remember that every major leap forward — whether it was the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Nazis, the discovery of the polio vaccine, the legalization of same-sex marriage, all seemed impossible until they were achieved. And then, and only then, did they not only seem possible, they seemed inevitable.
So we are not asking much from you. We are only asking you to make the impossible inevitable. Know that you have the resources within you and among you to do it. I know Morpheus thinks that Neo is the One. But I’ll tell you a secret. He isn’t. You are.
I’ll leave you with one final thought — despair begets more despair. And anger begets more anger. But optimism begets more optimism. Don’t let go of it. You need it. We need it. We need you.