Feminism As Humanism
May 17, 2016
I am deeply honored to be giving this address. And I have to say it’s the only way I’m ever going to make it to the stage of the Radio Music Hall. I follow in a long line of distinguished speakers, including, in 2012, President Obama. But when I was announced back in February, many of you protested. A group of you, both students and faculty, wrote to President Spar and signed a campus petition. As one eloquent signatory wrote in the Columbia Daily Spectator, quote “I would prefer my commencement speaker to be someone who preaches a feminism like mine—one that is intersectional and inclusive to its core. I believe that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fits that description more than Anne-Marie Slaughter.”
I am not here to shake my finger at you! I heartily approve campus protest; and think that Barnard is doing an excellent job of educating all of you to be questioners and critical thinkers in the best liberal arts tradition. President Spar also responded exactly as she should have, calling in the leaders of the protest and inviting all of the medalists to speak at a reception yesterday. And perhaps above all, I am an enormous admirer of Chimamanda Adichie’s work, particularly her novel Americanah, and was I honored to find out that I would be on stage beside her.
The deeper issue here, however, is the nature of contemporary feminism: questions of who can speak for whom and what we should be speaking about. The protesters charged that I am a representative quote “of white corporate feminism,” unquote the feminism quote “of upper middle class, white, heterosexual women” unquote that fixes - fixates on why more women cannot make it to the top of professional ladders rather than focusing on the questions facing all women, particularly women who confront the barriers of race, class, and sexual orientation as well as gender.
I am indeed white and upper middle class. As a lifelong academic, government official, and now nonprofit leader, I am not corporate, although for these purposes I am categorized together with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who renewed the energy of second wave feminism with her original Lean In speech at this commencement in 2011, something Barnard should be proud of. The title of my 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is also often taken as emblematic of a wealthy woman’s focus on “having it all” rather than trying to help women who have barely enough.
But does my identity mean I cannot speak for women who do not look or live like me? This is the same question that has created the generational split among so many women with regard to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Older women see her as breaking barriers for all women; many younger women focus more on her wealth and privilege than on her gender.
It’s an important question, to be taken seriously and answered, or at least wrestled with. I will argue today that each of us can speak only our own truth. But we can understand our truth as standing for others as well as for ourselves. Speaking and standing for others, however, should include creating and insisting on space for those others to stand and speak for themselves, which is why I laud the protesters against me. And it requires direct, open, and honest dialogue among all.
Still, we must move beyond protest. Today, now, in this country and this world at this time, we must come together. As women, as men, and as members of a larger humanity.
We must come together as competitors and as carers. Carers is the word the British use, I find it fascinating that it is just one “e” away from career. You know all about competition. You competed to be admitted to Barnard; you competed against each other in classrooms and clubs and on platforms and playing fields. I was recently on the website of the XPrize Foundation, the ultimate emblem of techno-optimism, offering prizes for everything from cures to cancer to voyages to Mars. “We believe in the power of competition,” it says. “That it’s part of our DNA. Of humanity itself. That tapping into that indomitable spirit of competition brings about breakthroughs and solutions that once seemed unimaginable. Impossible.”
Competition is certainly part of American DNA. Other societies that have faced harsher conditions for survival, as indeed many Native Americans did here, developed cultures that put an equal premium on care. Care is investing in others, ensuring that family members, community members, students, the sick, troubled, disabled, and disadvantaged grow and thrive. It is equally part of our human DNA. And it’s equally important and valuable as a human activity.
The majority of Barnard women of my mother’s generation used their fine education to raise their children and invest in their communities. The Barnard women of my generation were taught to look down on that path, to see it as a waste of their talents and potential. That is wrong. It is right that all of you have far greater opportunities to fulfill your professional goals and dreams with far fewer barriers than your mothers and grandmothers faced. But being able to compete should not negate the importance of care.
As a policy professional, I can say unequivocally that there is perhaps no single more important activity for the future security, prosperity, and equality of our country than investing in the care and education of all of our children. We now know that in the first five years of a child’s life we are not simply filling his or her brain with information. We are shaping that brain, determining how much and how well that child can learn for the rest of his or her life. We are determining the future of our society and indeed of humanity.
Not all of you will have children. But all of you have parents or other beloved adults in your life who will age, as indeed all of us will. And at the other end of life care will determine not only how long we live but how well, how productively, with how much dignity and autonomy. That too is vitally important work, for our society and ourselves. Caring is the heart of our humanity. When we praise someone for being humane or when we give awards to great humanitarians, we are valuing their caring, not their winning.
Valuing care as much as competition is also vital for an inclusive, intersectional feminism. We not only have too few women at the top; we have far too many at the bottom. And by far the largest group of women at the bottom are single mothers, who receive incentives to work to support their families but no support for their work of caring for those families. Moreover, the majority of paid caregivers, from childcare to eldercare, are poor women of color. Their work is essential, but we pay them the same as we pay people to walk our dogs, mix our drinks, and park our cars. We must see and compensate them as the workforce of the future – the future of all of us.
So we must come together as competitors and carers. We must also come together as women and as men. We must have exactly the same expectations of men as of women – that they provide for their families with care as much as cash. For those of you graduating today who will marry men or choose them as life partners, you should expect them to be equally competent at caring for children, parents, or other family members as you are, and you should expect them to make equal trade-offs between care and career as necessary. That does not just mean “helping,” doing an equal number of things on the endless lists you will find yourselves drawing up. It means letting him draw up the lists, letting him take equal responsibility for everything from birthday parties to play dates to choosing schools and doctors. And it means deferring a promotion so you can take one, or moving for you if that is what your career requires.
But it equally means valuing the men who have the courage and the confidence to break out of traditional gender roles. I speak now not only to future wives and partners, but also to the parents, the grandparents, and other family members in the audience who have brothers, sons, and future sons-in-law. YOU must value the man who supports your daughter with time rather than income.
Making money is often easier than making time. But a family needs both. The men who are willing to step up as lead parents or lead caregivers for their own parents are pioneers, living the principles of equality rather than paying lip service. Real equality requires equal trade-offs, trade-offs that we should value when both women and men make them to care for those they love or for their larger communities. And we will liberate men in the process.
We must come together as competitors and carers, as women and as men, and as all women.
We must come together as women of all colors, including white. As women of every ethnicity, creed, and national origin. As heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transwomen. As rich women, poor women, and middle-class women. As teachers, coaches, counselors, therapists, ministers, rabbis, imams, firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, professors, CEOs, and presidents.
Gloria Steinem, another white, privileged woman who opened doors for so many others, made the argument back in 1970 that a women’s movement could be quote “a revolutionary bridge,” “between black and white women” and between women and “the construction workers and suburbanites, between Mr. Nixon's Silent Majority and the young people it fears.” Women could provide the link between all those groups, she wrote, because quote they “are sisters; they have many of the same problems, and they can communicate with each other.’ I would add, listening to so many of you, that they can communicate with each other and lift up each others’ voices, creating spaces and platforms for everyone to be heard.
In that spirit, let me close with the words of my fellow honorand, Chimamanda Adichie, a woman certainly equally worth hearing! In a pamphlet she published based on her TED talk, Adichie defines feminism without qualifying adjectives – white, corporate, heterosexual, or intersectional. A feminist, in her view, is quote “a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’” Indeed, the title of her pamphlet is “We Should All Be Feminists.”
That message has never been more important. You are graduating during an extraordinary moment in American history, where the first woman ever is set to be the presidential candidate of a major national party and when her opponent is openly peddling both racism and sexism, once again describing and rating women in terms of their breasts and bottoms.
It is time to fight back, not as political partisans but as citizens. As custodians of a great society. As champions of liberal values, not liberal in the political sense but in the sense of your liberal arts education here at Barnard. The values of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, the Gettysburg Address, Justice Jackson’s great dissent in the Korematsu case, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. The values of liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, and democracy. The values of all women. And all men.
The oldest strategy in the book is “divide and conquer.” United we stand, divided we fall. But not this time. We should all be feminists. And when we claim the mantle of feminism that our foremothers have woven, together with many of our forefathers, we should wear it as a chieftain’s cloak, empowering us to stand, and to stand up, for all of our sisters, and our brothers too. As Secretary Clinton proclaimed in Beijing in 1995, women’s rights are human rights. It follows that feminism is also humanism.
So make this your day, your time, and your world. Come together, stand together, and lift each other up. For competition and for care. For equality. And above all, for humanity. For all of us as equal members of the human race across the country and around the world. And for what makes all of us human, now and forever. Thank you very much.
 Gloria Steinem, “‘Women’s Liberation’ Aims to Free Men Too,” The Washington Post, June 7, 1970.