Cecile Richards: Prepared Remarks
To President Spar.
To the Board of Trustees
To Patti Smith, Ursula Burns, Mahzarin Banajii. A tremendous honor to mentioned in the same breath as all of you.
To the beaming relatives.
To the ecstatic graduates
So honored to be here, and more than a bit awestruck.
A couple of disclaimers before I get started:
First, in fact I myself didn’t even walk in my graduation ceremony. I was otherwise occupied.
At the time, students at Brown were protesting the university’s investments in South Africa, and someone had to unfurl the banner from the second floor window, so why not me?
And it even partially paid off. Brown was in fact one of the first schools to divest, and it was an incredible honor to be back on campus not long ago when Dr. Ruth Simmons presented Nelson Mandela with an honorary degree from Brown.
And, second, I’m not a Barnard alum though it seems like 90% of my colleagues at Planned Parenthood are.
From our chief operating officer to our national board, Barnard alumnae are pretty much running the place. So thank you for that.
It’s a privilege to be here with all of you strong, beautiful, Barnard women today.
You are in a pretty sweet position, because everyone from Tom Brokaw to Hillary Clinton is saying this is the century of the woman. And wow. Since we’ve had to wait 200,000 years – there’s no time to waste!
Many of you may have already carefully plotted out your future. Some of you have probably already written books and invented new apps and learned five languages – it’s overwhelming.
But if I may just speak for a moment to the other half of you who aren’t totally certain what’s next – let me just say: most of us never are.
And as you begin the lifelong process of figuring it all out, I’ll put in a plug for one option that your advisor may not have suggested.
Commencement speeches must have a message and so to make this simple here’s mine: life as an activist, troublemaker, agitator, is a tremendous option and one I highly recommend.
In your four years at Barnard you’ve produced the Vagina Monologues, worked on mayoral and presidential campaigns, tutored kids in the neighborhood, taken back the night – and today you’re getting ready to leave all that behind you and become a fully functioning adult with a real-life career.
But all those amazing things you’ve done here on campus. That could actually beyour career – and lead to the most incredible life.
We all need to acknowledge the privilege to which we were born so here is mine: My parents were activists.
Our dining room table wasn’t where we ate – it was where we stuffed envelopes and sorted precinct lists for whatever campaign my folks were working on.
Growing up in Dallas in the 60s, my parents were into every movement that came through town. My dad defended conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. My mother dragged us as kids to the grocery store, demanding to see the union label on the grapes. And then there was the day she went to hear an activist named Gloria Steinem and came home a new convert to this thing called women’s liberation….
My first brush with the authorities was in seventh grade, the day I wore a black armband to school to protest the war – a heinous offense back in Texas.
Being called to the principal’s office at the tender age of 13 sort of lit the fuse, but after surviving that standoff, I refused to take off my armband and that started my life of standing up for principles, even when they’re controversial.
I know there’s been some controversy about my appearance here today, and I appreciate the fact that Barnard women are the kind of people who don’t have to agree with someone to listen to her thoughts.
As you may know, Planned Parenthood was born in controversy – a tradition we’ve done our best to uphold for 98 years.
Nearly a century ago, Margaret Sanger opened the first – illegal – birth control clinic in the country, just down the road in Brooklyn. One day an undercover police officer posing as a mother showed up, busted Margaret, and threw her in jail – where she taught her fellow inmates about birth control!
And a movement was born.
Ever since then we’ve have what you might call an affinity for challenging the status quo – something we share with Barnard.
Barnard was founded 125 years ago, one of the first colleges in the world to embrace the radical idea that women deserve access to higher education.
By the time the 70s and 80s rolled around, women had infiltrated just about every college campus in the country
We were no longer an exception. Suddenly we were a pretty hot commodity, and every school wanted women.
One by one the seven sisters started coupling up with their co-ed counterparts – and all eyes turned to Barnard.
As Planned Parenthood board member and Barnard alum Anna Quindlen tells it, the conventional wisdom at the time was that Barnard should marry Columbia and take its name.
But Barnard refused to fold.
Fifty years ago The New York Times reported on Barnard’s commencement, noting with pride how many graduates of the class of 1964 were already married – they’d made it!
But the class of 2014 is living up to your own definitions of success. A teacher who developed a history curriculum for high school students in Cape Town, South Africa. The captain of the Columbia women’s lacrosse team. An entrepreneur who started an organization that sells jewelry while raising money and awareness around gun violence.
Educating and empowering women has turned out to be a growth industry, and Barnard was an early investor.
But whether it’s access to education or access to health care, women have only ever gotten what we fight for – nothing more, and I hope, nothing less.
We’ve been painfully reminded in the last few weeks that in too many parts of the world, women’s education is still considered a radical idea – that girls can be shot at, kidnapped, even enslaved for having the audacity to go to school.
Our fight is far from over. So thank you, Barnard, for more than a century of leading the charge.
Working for social change, it is often hard to measure progress when you’re right in the middle of it.
In fact, back when my great grandmother was a girl, the only folks who couldn’t vote under Texas law were “idiots, imbeciles, the insane, and women.”
But wouldn’t you know – just two generations later, my mother, Ann Richards, was elected governor.
That’s the thing about women. Give us an inch and we just won’t quit.
In the words of the legendary Congresswoman Bella Abzug: “Maybe we weren’t at the Last Supper, but we’re certainly going to be at the next one!
Take the more recent fight to pass the Affordable Care Act –
During an argument about women’s health, a male senator objected to insurance coverage for maternity benefits saying he “wouldn’t need them” – Senator Debbie Stabenow came right back without missing a beat and said, “I bet your mother did.”
For women - if we aren’t at the table, we are on the menu.
Having 20 women in the U.S. Senate has changed the conversation on Capitol Hill – though as Senator Claire McCaskill says, you know what would be better? 50.
And it’s not just politics. All over the world, fearless women turning life as we know it upside down.
Take Ory Okolloh, who grew up in Nairobi, went to college and law school in the states, and turned down a job offer from a top firm in Washington to come home after graduation for Kenya’s 2007 election.
When riots broke out at the polls, Ory teamed up with a few friends to create a crowdsourced map tracking incidences of violence in real time. They called it “ushahidi” – the Swahili word for testimony.
Their platform is now used around the world, tracking everything from corruption by members of parliament to survivors of the hurricane in Haiti to traffic problems in Washington.
And as for Ory – you can read all about her on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Right here in New York, Reshma Saujani decided that if women were encouraged they could be superstars in the tech industry. She started “Girls Who Code” and chapters are now popping up all over the country, with young women learning the skills they need to take on careers in computer science.
And then there’s Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who met after they had each been sexually assaulted as students at UNC and realized what happened to them was happening everywhere. And no one was talking about it.
The first time they pitched their story to a national reporter, the reporter laughed.
Two months later they were on the front page of The New York Times.
That’s when the floodgates opened. They heard from hundreds of survivors all over the country.
And then this March, Annie and Andrea showed up at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office without an appointment and said, “Let’s talk about ending sexual assault on campus.”
As Annie tells it: “We started talking – and she listened.”
Today they’ve formed a national network of survivors, working with Congress and the White House to end campus sexual assault and demand justice.
The common theme?
These women didn’t wait to be asked. They just jumped headfirst.
To borrow some wisdom from Lena Dunham: “Don’t wait around for someone else to tell your story. Do it yourself by whatever means necessary.”
If you hold out for an invitation, chances are good you’ll miss the party. And by the party I mean life.
Growing up, Mom always told me:
The answer to life is yes.
This is the only life you have so make the most of it. Take every opportunity and risk you can. You’ll only regret the things you didn’t do because you were afraid to try.
Women often talk to me about a job and are worried they don’t have the right degree.
Or that they don’t have all the right experience. I’ve never heard a man say any of that …
Or that they want to have kids, and how’s that going to work?
On that front, I was 8 months pregnant with twins campaigning for my mother. You haven’t lived until you’ve been on a float in the Yamboree parade in East Texas in a giant maternity dress – you can imagine.
My true confession. Every single job I’ve interviewed for – from deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi to running Planned Parenthood – I knew there was NO WAY I would get it.
But frankly I knew my mother would kill me if I didn’t try.
So I’m here to tell you – just do it. Whatever it is. Say yes. You’re Barnard women and certainly have the smarts and training to figure everything else out.
As the late great Nora Ephron advised, “Be the heroine of your life, never the victim.”
And to all the parents.
I know you’re so proud of your daughters today – and trust me, if you think they’re great as students, wait until you get to know them as fiercely independent adults.
I’ve never cheered so loud as when my son Daniel became the vice-chair of the women’s rights group on his campus, where they finally got birth control for students!
Or my daughter Hannah who organized a rally in support of Planned Parenthood, complete with flash mob, at Wesleyan.
And of course – there’s the proud day when Rush Limbaugh came after my daughter Lily, right on the radio, for being an outspoken feminist! Now that’s bragging rights.
The Richards tradition – passed down through generations …
My mom taught me so much. The basics:
Never wear patterns on TV.
If you’re going to be in the public eye, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you pick a hairstyle and stick with it.
Before naming your child, think about how it’ll look on a bumper sticker.
But the most important lesson?
There’s one thing a life of activism offers that you can’t get anywhere else: that’s getting to do work that makes a difference.
Mom said: “You may go somewhere else and you may make a lot of money, but you will never receive the kind of gratification that you receive from looking someone in the eye who says thank you for helping make my life better.”
The world we live in can be tough. It can be unjust.
But here’s the great news: Each of you has the power to do something about it. You get to build the world you want to live in.
It’s not about being perfect, having it all, doing it all – it’s about getting started.
You’ve got work to do – so congratulations, and let’s get to it.