These 5 Graduation Speeches Made By Women Leaders Truly Give Us Inspiration For Our Futures
Ahh, graduation season: a time for reflection and to remember the past four (or five or six) years of undergrad. But really, it's a time to look back at all of the empowering women leaders who have given the best commencement speeches ever. And there are some speeches by these memorable women that will just remain classics.
In her 1996 commencement speech to Wellesley graduates, writer and director Nora Ephron encouraged the young women in the audience to "be the heroines of [their] lives." Ephron reminded the crowd to stop listening to the naysayers who say women couldn't "have it all." "Of course you can have it all," Ephron said. Her speech, which should be played over and over if you know what's good for you, perhaps set the tone for the necessity of women's voices during commencement addresses.
In the 19 years since Ephron's speech, there have been several remarkable women leaders — heroines — whose talents have been featured during college graduations. The shining examples include women who led the charge in social media, women who managed foreign relations, women who conquered life in the White House and life after it. The women who have gone before us have important messages, and we need to listen.
During her May 9 address to the graduates of Tuskegee University this year, First Lady Michelle Obama addressed issues of race that she encountered during her husband's 2008 campaign. By speaking about the issues that she faced as a woman of color, Obama delivered honest and inspiring words to any student who might face adversity or discrimination based on his or her identity. As Rachel Maddow says, Mrs. Obama might be the best person to speak to these issues. Thank goodness she did.
But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
In May 2014, Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president and daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, delivered the commencement speech at Barnard College, where she told graduates that though women are making progress in this country, we are not nearly where we need to be. Richards cited Ephron — swoon — and her mother when she encouraged women to be the heroine of their lives, to never question whether they could take on a task and to always take the opportunities that arise.
Growing up, Mom always told me: The answer to life is yes. This is the only life you have so make the most of it. Take every opportunity and risk you can. You’ll only regret the things you didn’t do because you were afraid to try.
New York state Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand delivered a speech at Vassar in 2013 to an audience that included Meryl Streep, who is both a Vassar alumna and parent and gave a brilliant speech of her own at Barnard in 2010. Gillibrand spoke with such eloquence that the three-time Oscar winner had to have been on her feet. Instead of throwing a cheesy line akin to "reaching for the stars," Gillibrand addressed how difficult it is sometimes to actually make a difference. She reminded students that not only making a difference matters, but also that "fighting to make a difference matters." Sometimes, she says, it really is about how bad you want things to change.
So I’m asking you to find it in yourselves not just to meet the demands of a new era, but to lead us there.... And when met with a challenge of tired, outdated, status-quo thinking, it is my hope that you will not see the world as it is, but you will see it as it could, and should, be, and say, 'Why not?'
At the 2012 commencement at the Annenberg School of Communications, journalist activist and author Maria Shriver spoke to communication students about the power of the pause — when the chatter stops. She told graduates that the questions about what comes next will never stop. What they can do, she says, is to focus on the moment and to live in that pause before pressing fast-forward. This is advice that any graduate, no matter when, would be overjoyed to hear. Because the "What are you doing next?" questions are just never gonna stop, people.
You have the power, each and every one of you, to change the way we as a nation speak to one another. I truly believe you can change our national discourse for the better. You have the chance to change the way we talk to one another, what we read on the Web and newspapers and magazines, what we see on TV, what we hear on radio. You can help us change the channel.
A graduation speech compilation without HRC does not a comprehensive or fair list make. Hillary Clinton's 2009 speech at Barnard came at the beginning of her term as secretary of state, and she noted that it was also a pivotal time for women graduating college. These educated women, Clinton said, had a responsibility to ensure the empowerment of women and girls around the world. They needed to be the voices and the resources for those who had none. Because that's the point of getting an education in the first place—use your privilege to help others. Way to bring it home, Hills.
And women's progress is more than a matter of morality. It is a political, economic, social and security imperative for the United States and for every nation represented in this graduating class. If you want to know how stable, healthy, and democratic a country is, look at its women, look at its girls.