Barnard College Commencement
Monday, May 14, 2012
New York City

Photo: David Wentworth/Barnard College

It is my privilege, acting on the authority delegated by the Board of Trustees and on behalf of the faculty of Barnard College, to present these students just named at the Columbia University Commencement Ceremony, to be held Wednesday morning for the degree of Bachelor of Arts with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities pertaining, thereto.  That means you graduated.  [Applause.]

This has been a rather extraordinary day for Barnard. [Applause].  It is a day that marks an historic moment for the Barnard community, and also for me, personally. The Class of 2012 is my first class. [Applause.]

You were the first I had the pleasure of welcoming to campus four years ago. The first I’ve had the pleasure of watching develop, explore and mature. As a class, you’ve lived through the financial crisis of 2008 – not so much fun – the great recession and the first U.S. Election to put a person of color in the White House. [Applause] – which I’m sure you know, is also the first election in which you could vote. 

This year, meanwhile, your Senior year at college has been a particularly busy one for Barnard.  We started with a hurricane, we opened new chemistry labs and new dance studios.  And we celebrated the fortieth of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. [Applause.]  Some of you traveled to Washington for the launch of the Women in Public Service Project; others to Mumbai to celebrate Women Changing India. 

We’ve hosted an amazing second run of the Athena Film Festival. We’ve welcomed a slew of visitors to campus, including Edwidge Danticat, Valerie Jarrett, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey and now you get to cap it all with the President of the United States. [Applause.]

On a broader and more somber note, you have also spent you college years during an extraordinary time for women. Some of this “extraordinariness” is wonderful. Indeed, during just the four years that you’ve spent here, we’ve seen a woman run for President, and then become the third woman to serve as Secretary of State. [Applause.]

We’ve seen two women in join in the Supreme Court, bringing the total number of female Justices finally up to three. We have seen a woman serving as Speaker of the House, as Director of the International Monetary Fund, as the President of Brazil and as the hardworking savior of the European Union.  

As President Obama mentioned, these are incredible achievements. Achievements that your mothers and grandmothers might well have thought inconceivable. Yet, during your four years at Barnard, you’ve also witnessed an extraordinary attack on Women’s Rights, and particularly, on the reproductive rights that most of you probably grew up taking for granted. In Texas, for example, law makers recently banned Planned Parenthood from receiving any money from the State’s Women’s Health Program, affecting the over forty thousand women who depend on Planned Parenthood for all of their health care. 

In New Hampshire, the House recently passed a measure that would allow any employer to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage is the objection is based on religious beliefs. And in Arizona, just last month, law makers approved a bill that bans nearly all abortions performed just eighteen weeks after fertilization. Legislators in thirteen other states have introduced similar legislation. 

These are really important developments. Frightening for what they suggest about the fragility of rights that your generation and mine, have long regarded as both sacrosanct and guaranteed. But even amidst these tense and turbulent times, I actually see a very strong reason for optimism – not because I see the waves of attack retrenching or because I predict a return to political civility after the 2012 Election – nice though, those might be. 

No, my optimism comes from you. It comes from the students who spoke with me last month about reproductive rights and about what they personally could do to re-energize the struggle that was launched here in many ways in the 1960s and 1970s. My optimism comes from the students on both sides of Broadway, who organize themselves after the eruption of sexist comments earlier this semester and who banded together to fight misogyny on campus and in the broader community. [Applause.]

My optimism comes from those of you who are heading off to fight for the Civil Rights of women in Northern Uganda, to address illiteracy among girls in rural India and to build websites and join organizations devoted to ending homophobia, bullying, misogyny and other hateful practices. [Applause.]

My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and we interpreted them, somehow, as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and we focused largely on our individual dreams and our own inevitable frustrations. Even worse, we handed your generation not only the gift of choice, but also the burden of great – almost certainly unrealistic – expectations. We told you that you could be whatever you wanted, but then we pushed you – sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, to be everything – the soccer star and the theatre star; the straight A student and the little princess – to be perfect. 

The task for your generation is to make the personal, political again. To take the education you have received, to take the grit and the brilliance and ambition that each and every one of you have, and to forge these components into a commitment to fight – not only for your own aspirations, important as those are, but also for the dreams and the hopes and the rights of a broader community.

I urge you – all of you – join a local organization. Serve on the Board of a non-profit venture.  Find your voice and make it heard. Don’t struggle only to build your own career or to balance what will inevitably, your own wonderful but complicated lives; but bring others with you in common causes and common struggles. And crucially, to echo the President – do not neglect the political process. Run for office, serve your government, run for President. Vote. [Applause.]

As Tony Judt wrote, just months before his untimely death earlier last year, republics and democracies exist only by virtue of the engagement of their citizens in the management of public affairs. If active or concerned citizens forfeit politics, they thereby, abandon their society to its most mediocre and venal public servants.

You came to Barnard four years ago as a bright, eager, extraordinary group of girls.  It was a pleasure to get to know you then and it’s an even greater pleasure to see you here today – a little older, a little wiser, and a great deal more confident about who you are, who you’re not and what you can offer to that wide, wild and wonderful world that awaits you now.  I wish you joy and love and all the luck you can imagine. Thank you. [Applause.]