Steinem's Commencement Address
Gloria Steinem spoke to the graduates of the Class of 2015
In tribute to the real, let me just say that there is no way that I can live up to your expectations. Also [let me say] that, listening to and seeing Mariko, and listening to and seeing all of you, is such a gift to me. You have no idea how – are you braced for my favorite word? – fan-fucking-tastic it feels.
But in real life everybody, including Lacan, is like those nests of Russian dolls in which there is the littlest person in the center and it [expands outwards]. I think we’re all like that. So I just want to say to you that I have never escaped the moments like now in which I lose all of my saliva, each tooth acquires a little angora sweater from nervousness that catches my upper lip, and I think, “how did a writer like me ever get to be speaking in public like this?”
The truth is that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t [publish] what I wanted to publish, especially at the beginning of the women’s movement. And so I began to go out with another brave co-speaker.
And I discovered something magic courtesy of that, which is that when we are in a room with all five senses we can understand each other and empathize with each other in a way that is beyond what we do on the printed page or on the screen. It turns out, according to my friendly, brilliant neurologist, that we do not produce the same hormone that allows us to empathize. The oxytocin that floods us, both men and women, when we hold a child, when we are in each other’s presence -- it doesn’t happen unless we are here.
That is one of the many ways, I think, in which restriction leads to liberation. If I had been able to publish what it was I wished to publish I never would have discovered the magic of being in a room like this together.
So, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that graduations are my most favorite event of all time. I love commencements, I love the moment, the ceremony. It’s all of you, it’s the graduates, it’s everybody – the family, the friends, the lovers, the old lovers (you know who you are), everybody who helped pay the bill. It is all of us coming together in this extraordinary moment that I am such a sucker for. These events are more permanent than weddings, right? They are more diverse than most religious ceremonies, they are more freely chosen than almost any other kind of group ritual. And I am so grateful to you that you have invited me – an outlander – to come and share this great, great occasion.
Now, of course, I have been worrying about what I could possibly say that might be helpful at a time like this of both ending and beginning. And my only comfort has been in remembering that in my case of college education, what was helpful was always completely unpredictable. And often it was something that I only realized was helpful many, many years later.
Here’s one example: I took a course in geology feeling that it was the easiest way to fulfill my science requirement. And our professor took us out on a field trip to see the [meander cut-off] curves of the Connecticut River. I, of course, was paying no attention to his lecture because I had seen on the dirt road leading to the river a gigantic mud turtle… who had crawled up the dirt road and was in the muddy embankment leading to an asphalt road. It was clear to me that this turtle was about to continue onto that road and be crushed by a car.
So I picked up the enormous, snapping, angry turtle and with great difficulty I carried it down the path to the river. I had just slipped it into the water and was watching it swim away when the professor came up behind me and said, “You know, that turtle has probably spent a month crawling up that path to lay its eggs in the muddy embankment, and you have just put it back in the river.”
I felt terrible but it was too late; the turtle was already swimming away.
And only in later years, when I had become a traveling organizer, only then did I realize the huge lesson I had learned: Always ask the turtle.
There are lots of corollaries of that, right? Anybody who has experience is probably more expert than the experts. Even well meaning programs, whether they are governments or foundations, often make the mistake of making decisions up here [hand gesture] and thinking they have the solutions that they can just drop down. So even if it is the right solution, it prevents the turtle from flexing the muscles that allow us to discover who we are and to be self-determining. And now whenever I hear someone in a foundation or government position say things like, “Is it replicable?” or “Can you scale it up?,” I know we’re in deep shit.
Many of the things you have learned here, and hopefully even something I may say, with luck, may or may not be helpful or may or may not be something that you recognize as helpful in many years to come. But only that -- only the turtle -- has given me the courage to come to you today and hope that it might be useful.
I think that graduation is a time when we think about changes that we want to move us toward kindness -- perhaps the most single important human quality ever -- and to seek justice and to make the changes we want to make. We tend to feel that is has to be started from above, and actually that is probably opposite of the case. It depends upon what we do every day; it’s those small increments that make the difference.
I think if I were to put any difference on the era into which you are graduating than the ones before you, I would say that now is the time to focus on connections. It is often said that “God is in the details,” right? I think it’s that “the Goddess is in the connections.”
This is not to say that all the previous stages were not necessary, they were necessary. Everyone who is emerging needs to have a time in which the problem or the person or whatever it is that is unique or invisible comes forward and is identified and begins to tell their story. Nothing is more important than narrative, than stories. We haven’t been sitting around campfires for a hundred thousand years telling our stories for nothing. Our brains are organized on narrative. If you tell me a fact, I will invent a story to tell you why that fact is true.
When we have been invisible unfairly in this world, for any reason --whatever that reason is-- it is terribly, terribly important that we are first able to name ourselves, to come forward, to tell our story. Usually what happens is that we tell what we think is an unsayable story, a shameful story, and a story that’s certainly ours alone. And then we hear six other people or a hundred or many other groups say, “That happened to you? That happened to me too.” And we begin to realize that if it has happened to unique human beings -- and we each are unique -- then it must be political, it must be about power. And if we come together in any way, we can begin to change it.
So that is an irreplaceable step and coming together in groups is an irreplaceable step. So for good and constructive reasons, of course this means there has been a civil rights movement based on shared experiences of lethal discrimination from voting to education and now to the unequal law enforcement that has given us a movement called Black Lives Matter. Of course we have to have that named movement.
And the fact is that this emotion -- because justice is a very contagious idea -- gave birth to a huge movement still going in Indian country where people had not been allowed to even control their own schools, were put into boarding schools with the sole purpose of “killing the Indian [while] saving the man,” as the inventor of those boarding schools said. [American Indians] could not teach their own language, hold their own spiritual ceremonies. A great amount of abuse and even murders took place in those schools.
And because of the civil rights movement and the contagion of the civil rights movement, the Indian movement was borne. [But] within the American Indian movement and the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement -- movements we love – still the women in those movements were not playing an equal role. Really, because no one really knew what an equal role looked like. And yet the idea of equality and justice and shared humanity were so strong that it gave birth to a big and diverse and spread out women’s movement. Again, by contagion.
So all of those were important steps. Becoming visible and organized at different times is crucial. But I fear that now we are seeing in silos. You know, there is the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement, there is the peace movement. But the truth of the matter is, as we know, that every single one of these movements is inextricably connected to the next. I fear sometimes that our adversaries know this better than we do because, you may have noticed, we pretty much have the same adversaries.
I was saying earlier today that on campus that one of the questions asked me is “Why is it that the same groups are against lesbians and birth control?” It seems irrational on the surface but it is not. Because, in fact, the opposite view of ours is that reproduction must be controlled. And that means [controlling] women’s bodies. If we didn’t have wombs we might be fine, who knows? But reproduction must be controlled. I live for the day when every economic course starts not with production but reproduction.
They understand, from their point of view [believe that] all sexuality is wrong, immoral, and should be outlawed unless it can end in reproduction. So, of course they are against family planning and safe and legal abortion and any expression of love between two women or between two men because this all stands for non-reproductive sexuality.
And, in fact, they have been telling us for years and years a lie about human sexuality. [Sex] has always been a way we communicate with each other, a way that we bond with each other as well as procreate if we choose to. I think that human beings -- although at this point I always worry that we are maligning animals in some way -- I think human beings are, more or less, the only ones who experience equal sexual pleasure whether we can conceive or not. And so that tells us that the purpose of human sexuality has always been about communication. But with patriarchy, with racism, with class…, with the ownership of children, we have reached a point at which we have been told (and I bet in this room this sounds familiar) that sexuality is only morally okay when it can end in reproduction and takes place inside patriarchal marriage so that children are properly owned.
So I think we begin to see that sometimes our adversaries know better what our connections are and we have to begin to understand them. We have to begin to understand that there is no way that racism can be perpetuated without controlling reproduction. So wherever there is racism it is bad for females of that race and every race.
It may affect females differently; the females of the supposedly ruling group may be restricted, sexually and physically, and put on a pedestal. But as a black suffragette said to a white suffragette sister, “a pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.” It may affect women of color differently because they become sexual possessions of everyone and the producers of cheap labor.
It isn’t that it affects us all the same but it affects us. And there is no such thing as a successful feminist movement that is not anti-racist and there is no such thing as an anti-racist movement that can be successful without also being feminist. So I think we begin to see what our connections are.
Now some of our connections we are just beginning to be able to prove. We’ve always known, for instance in tribal societies, that the more polarized the gender roles, the more violence in the society, [and] the more porous and chosen the gender roles, the less violence in the society. But now thanks to a book called Sex and World Peace, which I recommend to you[…], scholars have looked at pretty much every modern country and determined that the single greatest determinant of whether there is violence inside the country or whether that country will be willing to use military violence against another country is not actually poverty, it is not lack of natural resources, it is not religion, it is not even degree of democracy -- it is degree of violence against females.
Not because females are any more valuable than males, no, but because patriarchy demands control of reproduction and that becomes the model we see first. We see the controller and the controlled, we see the dominant and the passive. It normalizes that for everything else – for race, for class, for hierarchy in general.
So I hope that we as women can see the connection. Sometimes we’ve been so trained to not fight for ourselves -- it is tough to fight for ourselves. [But] if we see it as the root cause of hierarchy and domination and violence, I hope we are more likely to understand that we are not only fighting for ourselves but fighting for a greater purpose and we are also helping to point out that masculinity is a prison too. It may be a better prison, with wall-to-wall carpeting and people to serve you coffee, but ….
Once at Ms. magazine we tried to figure out [what would happen] if you [looked at] the statistics on when men die, if you [removed] those things that could reasonably be attributed to the masculine role (accidents and gun-related violence, tension, disease…). It turned out that men lived four or five years longer without the masculine role.
So, what other movement can offer you that? So I hope, I hope, I hope that we can begin to see the connections.
With this in mind, I have followed the advice of David Letterman, who was still doing it when I worked on this: I have tried to do ten top pieces of advice that I give to myself just in case they might be useful to you as graduates. See if any of these help you, and don’t feel you have to take any of them or all of them because some are quite controversial.
Number 10: If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but you think it’s a pig, it’s a pig. Trust your instinct. Your instinct is like a computer and the facts are like long division on a piece of old paper. Trust your instinct.
Number 9: Marx and Engels were smart about a lot of things (mainly because they were inspired by the Iroquois federation, inspired by what was on this ground). But not about the ends justifying the means. Actually, the means dictates the ends. We won’t have laughter and kindness and poetry and pleasure at the end of any revolution unless we have laughter and kindness and poetry and pleasure along the way.
Number 8: Laughter is the most revolutionary emotion because it is free. It is the only emotion that is free. Fear can be compelled, as we know. Even love can be compelled if we are kept isolated and dependent [...] in order to survive; we enmesh with our captor and believe we are in love. (The Stockholm Syndrome -- it happens to men too.) But laughter is an “aha” of understanding that comes when known things coincide and make something brand new. It is an orgasm of the mind, I think. Einstein said – Einstein could not possibly have said everything he is claimed to have said – but Einstein said he had to be careful while shaving because when he suddenly had an “aha” -- he had thought of something new -- he would laugh and cut himself.
Do not go anyplace they won’t let you laugh. Big, important rule. Including religious places. It’s the difference actually between spirituality and religion. Religion doesn’t let you laugh; spirituality does.
Number 7: There’s more variation among groups than between groups. We know that masculine and feminine are creations, very powerful cultural creations, but still creations. Just as the ideas of race and class are creations. So when making any generalized statement about women and men substitute, say, Gentiles and Jews, blacks and whites, rich and poor. If it is still acceptable okay. But if not, it’s not acceptable.
Number 6: For 95% of human history, spirituality saw God in all living things. Then God was gradually withdrawn over millennia from women and nature. Have any of you taken the trip down or up the Nile? Because you can see it in the carvings in the Nile. You can see that in the oldest African part God is present in papyrus and men and women and flowers and everything; then, you get back in the boat and it’s a thousand years later and the goddess has a son but no daughter and there’s less nature; then you get back in the boat and it’s another thousand years and finally the son goes up to be a consort; and then a male pharaoh sits on a throne, a male pharaoh sits on a throne that is the goddess; and then it gets to mosques that, like Christian churches and others, are built on top of the ancient ruins, and no representations of women or nature is allowed. As James Henry Breasted, a very smart Egyptologist, said, “Monotheism is but imperialism in religion.” Think about it.
Number 5: This follows 6, you’ll see. Religion is often politics in the sky, and you have to say so. It is the only politics that has managed to put itself off limits and continues to be powerful. When God looks like the ruling class, it’s a problem. When all the priesthood is guys it’s an even deeper problem. When we’re told to obey in order to get a reward after death – I mean, even corporations only [make you wait] until after retirement. And, incidentally, heaven didn’t exist in the very specific form as it does now in various monotheisms…. In egalitarian cultures you went to join your ancestors but there wasn’t this elaborate system of punishment and reward.
I am feeling really tempted to do something I probably shouldn’t do.
Okay, well one day I was reading a historian of religious architecture and he said… that the structures of patriarchal religions are built to resemble the body of a woman, because the central ceremony they house is one of men giving birth. Yes, [patriarchy] has taken over reproduction and controlled reproduction but it is still a big mythic thing, giving birth. So, as [the architectural historian] explains (and you can find it easily thanks to Google) there is always an outer entrance and an inner entrance – labia majora and labia minora -- and a vestibule in between. The same word physically. A vaginal aisle up the center; two curved ovarian structures on either sides; and the womb -- I knew I shouldn’t do this – and the altar in the center which is the womb where the miracle takes place. Where men say, “yes you were born of woman -- inferior creature, sex, dirty stuff, nasty break -- but if you obey the rules of the patriarchy we will sprinkle imitation birth food over your head, give you a new name and you will be reborn through the patriarchy.” In skirts! They have the nerve.
But, I mean, I’m actually serious. When you were a kid, didn’t you wonder why Jesus was blond and blue eyed? A Jewish guy in the middle of the Middle East? It’s about sex and race and class and if God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class is God. And we have to do something about this.
I had to go for a very minor test in a hospital and they gave me one of those forms to fill out where it asks your religion -- in case you drop dead they want to know who to call. And at first I put “none” but then I am always a little negative. So I wrote “pagan.” And the nurse said to me “What does that mean?” I said “it just means you believe there is an essence of godliness in all living things.”
I converted her on the spot.
Okay, now here’s a more practical one –
Number 4: The Golden Rule was written by smart folks for those who were kind of superior or controlling their own lives and it is very important. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Very important. But women and men who have been treated as inferior need to reverse it: You need to treat yourself as well as you treat other people.
Number 3: Labeling, as I was saying, makes the invisible visible. Naming ourselves is very important -- but it’s limiting. We’ve had a Declaration of Independence; I think now we need a Declaration of Interdependence…. Categories are the enemy of connecting. Here’s what I think we can use as an image instead. We are linked, we are not ranked. We are linked with each other, we are linked with nature. And the paradigm becomes a circle not a pyramid. And the paradigm of the old culture, the original culture was, as we know, a circle, not a pyramid. Whether they were in Africa or here, they shared the idea of the circle.
Number 2: Because we only have all of our five senses in the present, we can’t live in the past or the future. For this one I am really talking to myself because I live in the future. And you can’t, as it happens. You can only be alive in the present. Right now is all there is.
Number 1: This is the last one. This is to say that not only did it exist before, [you might say that] everything we want was once here in some form. It’s not human nature to be hierarchical and divided.
So this is my last and hopeful one: If even one generation were born without ranking and without violence and without shaming, and raised without shaming or violence or ranking, we have no idea what might be possible on this fragile spaceship Earth that we love so much. And you, the graduates of 2015 are part of that future, so part of that future. And I and so many of us here – well, I am going to live to 100, so I’ll be with you for a while – but eventually, I and the parents and everybody here, we won’t be with you. And yet we will. We’ll always be with you.
Thank you so much for letting me be part of this celebration.