To Carol Christ who leads Smith College (and does
the most amazing introductions); to the faculty who
create its purpose and the staff who give it daily life;
to the honorary degree recipients in whose presence
I am so very proud to be; to all the families and
friends and partners and children who have
sustained today's graduates -- especially those of
you who have performed the miracle of guiding
children through an experience you could not have -
- and most of all, to you, the beloved, brave, tired
and now headed-for-the-world graduates of the
Class of 2007:
The first generation of Facebook and YouTube Smithies; the class to shape and survive the most changes in the way Smith lives; the second class of the Iraq War, and the most diverse class in the history of Smith College, from Adas -- who made sure that Class (economic class) Is Never Dismissed, and to all those who help Smith College look more like the world:
I thank you for including me in your historic day.
It's historic for me, too, because I was sitting where you sit today exactly 51 years ago.
I wasn't sure I should bring up this half-century fact. For one thing, I feel connected to you, not distant. For another, I feared you might go into as much age-shock as I did when I woke up after my 70th birthday, and thought, “There's a 70- year-old woman in my bed! How did this happen?!”
But then I realized that fearing separation by age was probably more my generation's problem than yours. If I conjure up my own graduation day, for instance, even life after 30 seemed a hazy screen to be filled in by the needs of others -- and there were not yet even Adas to show us that life and growth continue. In our age ghetto, we pretty much accepted the idea that women were more valued for giving birth to others than for giving birth to ourselves.
Yes, many of us had professions, but they were secondary. As one of my classmates said in the light of later feminism, “I didn't have a job, I had a jobette.” We weren’t trying to change the world to fit women -- and neither was Smith in those days -- we were trying to change ourselves to fit the world.
If this seems hard to believe now, think of my two most famous age peers: Marilyn Monroe, who literally feared aging more than death, and Smith’s own Sylvia Plath, whose own world-class talent couldn't give her the autonomy she needed to survive.
Now, thanks to decades of feminist rebellion, your generation is much more likely to value minds and hearts and talents that last just as long as you do. You not only have a somewhat longer life expectancy physically, but faith in a much longer life of your own making. Fortunately for me, this also means you are better able to identify with other women across boundaries of age.
For instance: My generation of young women said things like, “I'm not going to be anything like my mother.” After all, if we didn't blame our mothers for living vicarious lives, we would have to admit that we might have to do the same. Even now, my generation -- and probably some of yours, too -- are living out the unlived lives of our mothers.
This is honorable and rewarding and loving, but it isn’t the same thing -- for either mother or daughter -- as living our own unique lives.
Now, I meet many young women who say something like, “I hope I can have as interesting a life as my mother.” Not the same life, but as interesting. And when I hear this, it brings tears to my eyes -- because I know there is not only love between generations, as there always has been, but now there is respect, learning, a sense of balance, even an invitation to adventure.
So instead of worrying about the decades between us, I thought I would use them as a measure of the future by projecting a similar time into the future. Like the swing of a compass arm, I invite you to measure the progress made in the time between my graduating class and yours, and project into the future same distance.
What might the world be like when you are come back to visit the class of 2057?
I'm not suggesting we know what will happen, but I am suggesting that imagination is a form of planning.
So let’s take a concrete example: In my generation, we were asked by the Smith vocational office how many words we could type a minute; a question that was never asked of then all-male students at Harvard or Princeton. Female-only typing was rationalized by supposedly greater female verbal skills, attention to detail, smaller fingers, goodness knows what, but the public imagination just didn't include male typists, certainly not Ivy League-educated ones.
Now, computers have come along, and “typing” is “keyboarding.” Suddenly, voila! -- men can type! Gives you faith in men's ability to change, doesn't it?
So maybe by 2057, occupational segregation -- an even greater cause of wage disparity than unequal pay, may have changed enough so there will be male nurses and female surgeons. Then male medics won’t come home from the military to be shamed out of nursing jobs, and nursing will be better paid for no longer being a pink collar ghetto.
Or perhaps parking lot attendants will no longer be paid more than childcare attendants -- as is now the case not because we value our cars more than our children but because the first are almost totally male and the second are almost totally female.
And most of all, maybe the vast unpaid area of care giving -- whether that means raising children or caring for the ill and elderly: about 30 percent of the productive work in this country and more than half in many countries -- maybe this huge and vital area of work will at last have an attributed economic value, whether it is done by women or men.
This is already a feminist proposal for tax policy. It would mean the attributed value of care giving would become tax deductible for those who pay taxes, and tax refundable for those who are too poor to pay taxes, thus substituting for the disaster of welfare. It would be a huge advance. We would at last be valuing all productive work, including that mysteriously defined as not-work: as in homemakers who “don’t work,” even though they work longer and harder than any other class of worker. (Not to mention with more likelihood of getting replaced by a younger worker.)
Take something deeper: My generation identified emotionally with every other vulnerable group, but without understanding why. Fifty years later, we understand why: females are an “out” group, too -- no wonder we identified. Now there are local, national and global liberation movements based on sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. We know in these movements we are each others' allies, if only because our adversaries are all the same.
Perhaps 50 years from now the public imagination will finally understand this as one inseparable movement. The same hierarchy that controls women's bodies as the means of reproduction -- which is how we women got into this jam in the first place -- and says that sexuality is only moral when it is directed toward reproduction within patriarchal marriage -- also controls reproduction in order to maintain racial difference and to preserve a racist caste system. We will understand
that it's impossible to be a feminist without also being an anti-racist -- and vice versa. Not only because women are in every group in the world but because racial caste and sexual caste are inseparable.
We will also understand that the same folks who are against contraception and abortion and even the sex education that helps avoid abortion -- anything that allows the separation of sexuality from reproduction -- are also against sexual expression between two women or between two men. They deny the reality that human sexuality has always been a form of communication and pleasure, not just a way we reproduce. (And I do mean always. The Native women who lived on this very land long before Europeans showed up had two or three children two or three years apart. They absolutely understood contraception, which