August 2016 Features

“It Is Your Turn to Stand Up”

10-11_Archways_Class of 2016_SimmonsI’m very pleased to be with you this afternoon and especially pleased to be with a graduating class that is so spirited. I love that. You know, I’ve heard many things about distinguished Bryn Mawr graduates and, indeed, about this class. And I have to say that they left something very important out of their description of you, and that is that this is undoubtedly the most attractive class ever to graduate from Bryn Mawr. I mustn’t leave that out.

So Madam Chair; President Cassidy; esteemed faculty and staff; families and friends of these graduates; and, of course, the magnificent class of 2016, including the graduate students who are completing their studies today, congratulations on the stellar accomplishments celebrated at this commencement ceremony.

Now, as a former president of a sister institution and as one who is knowledgeable about the higher education landscape, I greatly admire this institution, its legacy of leadership in asserting the vibrancy of women’s intellectual ability, its correspondingly unapologetic emphasis on academic rigor, and its clarity of conviction on moral and philosophical questions. Those who graduate today will carry with them a mark of distinction that can never be trivialized.

Thus, when I was approached about speaking at this ceremony almost a year ago, I was really honored to be asked to offer words of encouragement to this class. After all, I reasoned, among this class of 2016, there would undoubtedly be outstanding achievers and future leaders of myriad professions. I thought of the humor that I might use to gain your attention, the wisdom that I might impart based on my decades of experience, and the memorable sendoff that I might give you as you leave this storied institution.

Alas, in the intervening months since the letter from President Cassidy, the reality of where women stand with regard to equal respect and opportunity has come under sharp scrutiny causing me, therefore, to reconsider how funny I might be and what I might say.

So I offer no conventional adages or reassuring homily about the advances of women in society. So forgive me if this sounds somewhat less like a go forth and thrive speech and more like a call to arms because, in view of what I have seen-, because, in view of what I have seen over the past year I believe that the reality that many of you will face in the decades ahead may not be as halcyon as the women of my generation would have wished for the women of Bryn Mawr today.

Like you, I am inspired by the example of so many in the history of Bryn Mawr who, starting in the 19th century, asserted shocking, unconventional, and proscribed ideas about what women could achieve. That women could be the intellectual peers of men was an heretical idea to many including, by the way, some women who were prepared to accept lesser roles for themselves and their daughters.

Those of us in the Seven Sister family are more aware than most of that environment in which women’s colleges were born. It was an environment that assiduously denied the idea that women had the intellectual, social, and even, even biological wherewithal to engage profitably in rigorous study. Courageous individuals like M. Carey Thomas defied such notions of what women were and what they could be.

Like many, I’m almost embarrassed to say this, I had almost begun to be comfortable with the notion that if we followed the current course of steady but incremental improvement, women’s rights would inevitably be completely won. Aware that many young women find the old brand of women’s activism unappealing, I was confident that a steady diet of workplace bias, uneven pay, gender harassment and unequal social roles would ultimately persuade younger generations that gender equality remained very much a work in progress.

Some of the most ardent advocates of women’s equality today are men, men whose wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers have suffered the ignominy of unfair treatment. So surely, surely, this heartfelt support, the general thrust of improved governmental and workplace policies, and those daily lessons of living would create enough momentum to push us over the finish line.

But, suddenly, it seems, there has been reinserted forcefully into our national life and consciousness, a way of thinking about and treating women that negates many of the comfortable assumptions we may have about the state of women’s equality. Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware that women’s social and economic status remains shockingly in need of immediate remedy. The median annual earnings for women still lag behind those of men in every single state in the United States, and less than 30% of businesses are women owned.

However, the economic reality, important as it is, doesn’t reflect, completely, the danger that women face today. Of greatest concern to me is the possibility that unchecked bigotry, harassment and violence against women could not only deter further gains by women but also erect significant psychological and achievement barriers for coming generations of women.

Consider, consider the diatribes against women in the public sphere today that, if not wholly endorsed, are being silently endorsed by many, including some women. These atavistic diatribes raise familiar but distasteful questions about the intelligence, biological fitness, and seemliness, required comeliness, and general fitness of women for important and high-level tasks. This kind of behavior and rhetoric would be laughable if it were not alternately ignored, cheered, or dismissed by much of the public.

Some, of course, dismiss this rhetoric as mere theater. Others tolerate it as part of a larger set of questions about rolling back affirmative action gains. Few are prepared to point out the extent to which this behavior can undermine the performance of generations of young people.

Now, I know something about such rhetoric. When I was growing up in Texas, it was commonplace to hear similar kinds of rhetoric about blacks. Blacks were undeserving of respect; ignorant of the proper station God intended for them; unable to perform higher-level intellection; physically ugly and vestigial, even, in appearance. The psychological threat posed by this poisonous speech is unforgettable to me, and it is undeniable today.

Now, in this crucible of free speech, I want to be clear. Individuals in this country are entitled to voice their contempt, their bigotry, their hatred; and we must defend, assiduously, their legal right to advance alternative or objectionable views. But it is society’s silence and complicity in the face of such expressions that creates the felicitous medium for harassment and violence against those who are targeted by such speech.

When I was a child, hearing people call me nigger was less important than the silence from those who said and did nothing to counter the effects of such speech. And we know well the violence that accompanied anti-black rhetoric: murders, lynchings, beatings, the legacy of which continue into the present day.

Now, you’ve all achieved, and you will go forth with every measure of success to which you are entitled. As you do so, remember that your freedom and your opportunities have been purchased at great cost. We owe to those who came before us and those who follow us the obligation to pay attention, to speak up in the face of bigotry and exploitation, to do all that we can to ensure that our freedoms are preserved and enhanced.

We must raise our voices in defiance of those who would return this country to 19th century ideas and biases. Unchallenged assertions that accomplished women should be ridiculed because they offer strong opinions, challenge the status quo, aspire to achieve, or do not conform to popular notions of physical beauty reflect a movement toward darkness.

The history of this college is replete with examples of the valiant efforts to treat human beings as they deserve to be treated. Having studied here, you carry with you-

Is that a tornado warning or something?

Speaker: It’s a local firetruck. It’s okay.

Dr. Simmons: Oh, really! I thought I should check because I’ve been traumatized. Last night, I was to be the commencement speaker at the University of Oklahoma. We were all assembled in the football stadium. It’s a different ethos from Bryn Mawr. We were all assembled in the football stadium; and, suddenly, there came an alert that we had to seek cover because of an approaching storm. And so we had to shut down commencement, and I never had to give my commencement speech. So I thought maybe I had another opportunity here!

Having studied here, you carry with you a stronger sense than most of what could be lost if we return to practices of the past. When attempts were made, in the past, to deny Bryn Mawr students their rights, this college reacted strongly and defied such efforts. When convention held that women should not have access to advance studies, a few brave and outspoken individuals set out to disprove notions of inferiority among women.

Those who benefit from the bravery of those pioneers do not get a pass. It is your turn to stand up, turn back the tide of misogyny, insist on equal rights for women and men, and defy those who would debase and re-imprison women in the darkest and most alien of places.

The strong visage of Harriet Tubman will soon stare out from the $20 bill. Many who see her on this currency may be largely unaware of her remarkable life. Few can understand or relate to the adversity she faced as a slave and as a freedom fighter – my God, in those times, a woman, a freedom fighter! Few can imagine what she faced in hatred, in physical torture and penury. Few can imagine the psychological toll she had to overcome to lead so many to freedom. But overcome them she did because of her love of freedom and her independent mind.

Women like Harriet Tubman speak to us across the ages. Their strength can never be muted. Their voices can never be silenced. Neither should yours.

You have been truly privileged to have the education that Bryn Mawr affords. You’ve been truly privileged here- I was thinking, as I said that, my God, if Harriet Tubman lived today, what Donald Trump would be saying about the way she looks!

By the way, by the way, that is not a political statement! It’s true. We’ve heard so many comments this year about women not being pretty enough, not being clean enough, if you understand what I’m saying. Harriet Tubman, were she alive today, would’ve been castigated by many because of the way that she looks; and I’m just poised and ready because, when that $20 bill comes out, you’re going to start hearing that about this hideous face on the $20 bill. Amazing.

You’ve been privileged to have the education that Bryn Mawr affords. Now, go and make it mean something! Be strong in your views. Let your conduct reflect the amazingly courageous history of this place. Give no quarter to those who exploit the divisions among us. Build a reservoir of strength by extending to yourself and to others the love that moves mountains. Embrace, fully, who you are and freely, freely impart that to others. And most of all, most of all, be a champion for equality wherever you go and whatever you do. Thank you and Godspeed.