Thank you so much. I am thrilled to be here and to participate in this important commencement of this great university – this great college, because I, too, am a graduate of a women’s college – (applause) – and I think it’s the best investment that I and my parents ever made. It is my honor, therefore, to join you in celebrating. And I want to congratulate all of the student speakers, who I thought did an excellent job in expressing the feelings and the aspirations of this class. (Applause.)
I am honored to be in the company of my fellow honorees, each of whom has so well deserved this medal. And I want to congratulate your president on a brilliant first year as the head of Barnard. (Applause.) And I want to thank another woman who has had not only an impact on this college over the years, but on me personally, and that is the wise and wonderful Anna Quindlen. (Applause.) Her writing has helped to shape the public debate on issues affecting women, families, and all Americans. Her final column, which ran this week, was about making way for the next generation. And as always, Anna’s message rings true, especially as we honor this class of graduates.
We are meeting at a time of unprecedented opportunity and achievement for women. As you’ve already heard, women are serving at the highest levels of government here in the United States and around the world, in business, in academia, in the professions. We are presiding over companies and colleges, running philanthropies and laboratories, and breaking new ground as artists and activists and athletes.
We’re even seeing gender barriers broken at the racetrack. (Applause.) I don’t know about you, but I personally felt vindicated when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness, went where no filly has gone in 85 years up against 8 stallions. I can’t say I exactly identified with her – (laughter) – but I was very pleased that she brought home the Black-Eyed Susans.
Today, we are celebrating a class and an institution that is always ahead of the rest. This is a milestone of 120 years of educating women, of furthering scholarship, and serving the City of New York, and the people of the world.
Now, it is easy to forget that when Barnard first opened its doors in 1889, higher education for women was viewed with great suspicion. And many women and men labored for years to make this college possible. And even after Barnard finally came into being, they had to spend even more years convincing the world there was nothing to fear about women’s education and that the work being done here was truly a good thing.
Now, rumors still flew for decades about what exactly went on at Barnard. (Laughter.) Finally, in 1912, the New York Times
decided to investigate. It had published a long interview with the great dean of Barnard, Virginia Gildersleeve, which ran under the headline – and I quote – “College Girls Are Healthy, Normal American Girls.” (Laughter.) I’m sure that the readers of the Times
found that reassuring. And a few decades later, the editors and reporters did as well.
In fact, Dr. Gildersleeve made a persuasive case for why Barnard – and women’s education in general – is actually crucial to our society. She talked about how the college broadened its students, exposed them to new ideas and perspectives, introduced them to people from different backgrounds. She said that was a force not only for good for these women but for their communities. As she put it, “We do not teach manners. But we do teach manner. Poise, interest, tolerance and understanding – these are the things that college life teaches.”
Now, the context may have been different then, but the vision behind it is much the same. Just as those early Barnard students were being prepared for a world beyond their personal horizons, you have been prepared for global citizenship in the interconnected world of the 21st
You are coming of age at a time of unprecedented challenges: war and terrorism, climate change and economic recession, extreme poverty and extreme ideologies, the proliferation of disease and nuclear weapons. These challenges transcend borders and oceans, politics and ideology, and they affect us all. But the same interconnectedness that amplifies these global challenges also makes it possible for us to solve them, and for you to help lead us to the solutions.
When I graduated from college, diplomacy was mainly conducted by experts behind closed doors. They were primarily men. And very little of what they did was really visible to the rest of us. Today, diplomacy is no longer confined to the State Department or to diplomats in pin-striped suits. In this global age, we are engaging in 21st
century statecraft, and it is carried out beyond the halls of government – in barrios and rural villages, in corporate boardrooms and halls of government as well, but also church basements, hospitals, union halls, civic and cultural centers, and even in the dorms and classrooms of colleges like this.
The diplomacy of this age is fueled by personal engagement and interpersonal connections. And that’s where all of you come in. With new tools and technologies and with the first-rate education you’ve received, you now have the capacity to influence events in ways that no previous generation ever has.
But of course with that opportunity does come responsibility, because this new era of diplomacy requires a new commitment to global service – a continuing effort from each of you to help us tackle the most urgent problems we face. Just as we have special envoys for climate change or peace in the Middle East, so too must each of you be a special envoy of your ideals. Use your skill and talent with these new tools to help shape and reshape the future.
I want to talk about a particular area where I think you can, you should, and you must make a difference. It’s important to me personally and it’s especially important in my new job, and that is the plight of women and girls around the world. As women with strong voices and strong values, you are in a unique position to support women worldwide who don’t have the resources you do, but whose lives and dreams are just as worthy as yours and mine. I have concluded after traveling many miles and visiting many places in the last decades that talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not. The futures of these women and girls will affect yours and mine. And therefore, it is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing.
Although not always acknowledged by governments, businesses, or society overall, women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of most of the problems we face today. In the midst of this global economic crisis, women who are already the majority of the world’s poor are driven deeper into poverty. In places where food is scarce, women and girls are often the last to eat, and eat the least. In regions torn apart by war and conflict, women are more likely to be refugees or targets of sexual violence.
And just yesterday in a column by one of the former honorees by Barnard, Nick Kristof, we learned that one of the most dangerous places for women to be in the world is in childbirth. Meanwhile, in some places, girls are deliberately denied an education, even subjected to abuse and violence if they attempt to go to school, as we have seen too frequently over the last weeks in Afghanistan.
Now let me be clear: women around the world lead varied lives, and for many women, religion and culture are important sources of spiritual growth, identity, and pride. But the retrograde regimes around the world that pervert religion and culture to perpetuate violence and stand in the way of freedom and make women their primary targets are a different story. The subjugation of women – the denial of their rights as human beings – is not an expression of religion or of God’s will. It is a betrayal of both. (Applause.)
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.
When I went to the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing back in 1995, I made the point, which seemed to me to be pretty obvious, that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. Well, I was gratified but somewhat shocked at the reaction it produced. And as I have traveled in the years since, I have met so many women who took such heart from that simple statement. They understood deep in their gut that they had to be supported, that their struggles had to be acknowledged for them to gain a foothold, to gain that space, whether it be on the subway or back in a marketplace.
There are signs of hope and progress. Just this weekend, the people of Kuwait elected women to their parliament for the first time in history. (Applause.) This did not come easily or quickly. Starting in the 1990s, I supported the women who were brave enough to stand up and say women should be able to serve. It took a long struggle. But the election of four women this Saturday is a major step forward for Kuwait, the region, and I would argue, the world.
And yet the marginalization of women and girls goes on. It is one of humankind’s oldest problems. But what is different today is that we have 21st
century tools to combat it. Think of the women in Eastern Congo, a place of such violence, despair and chaos, who are using radio airwaves to warn other women and to send out the message to the world how this war, these militias are destroying their communities. Think of the women in Afghanistan who, against such great odds, started a single school that has grown into a network of schools, or the domestic violence center they began, which now serves thousands of women and girls. Or the women in Cambodia who were sold into sex slavery as girls, but who escaped and are now organizing raids of brothels throughout Southeast Asia to rescue girls and give them a chance at an education and a new life.
Some months ago here in New York, I had the privilege of meeting a young girl from Yemen. Her name is Nujood Ali. When she was nine years old, her family offered her into marriage with a much older man who turned out to be violent and abusive. At ten years old, desperate to escape her circumstances, she left her home and made her way to the local courthouse where she sat against a wall all day long until she was finally noticed, thankfully, by a woman lawyer named Shada Nasser, who asked this little girl what she was doing there. And the little girl said she came to get a divorce. And thanks to this lawyer, she did.
Now in another time, the story of her individual courage and her equally brave lawyer would not have been covered in the news even in her own country. But now, it is beamed worldwide by satellites, shared on blogs, posted on Twitter, celebrated in gatherings. Today, women are finding their voices, and those voices are being heard far beyond their own narrow circumstances. And here’s what each of you can do. You can visit the website of a nonprofit called Kiva, K-i-v-a, and send a microloan to an entrepreneur like Blanca, who wants to expand her small grocery store in Peru. You can send children’s books to a library in Namibia by purchasing items off an Amazon.com wish list. You can sit in your dorm room, or soon your new apartment, and use the web to plant trees across Africa through Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement.
And with these social networking tools that you use every day to tell people you’ve gone to get a latte or you’re going to be running late, you can unite your friends through Facebook to fight human trafficking or child marriage, like the two recent college graduates in Colombia – the country – who organized 14 million people into the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history, doing as much damage to the FARC terrorist network in a few weeks than had been done in years of military action. (Applause.)
And you can organize through Twitter, like the undergraduates at Northwestern who launched a global fast to bring attention to Iran’s imprisonment of an American journalist. And we have two young women journalists right now in prison in North Korea, and you can get busy on the internet and let the North Koreans know that we find that absolutely unacceptable. (Applause.)
These new tools are available for everyone. They are democratizing diplomacy. So over the next year, we will be creating Virtual Student Foreign Service Internships to partner American students with our embassies abroad to conduct digital diplomacy. And you can learn more about this initiative on the State Department website.
This is an opportunity for all of us to ask ourselves: What can I do? I’m heading off to my first job or I may be going to travel for a while or I have some other ideas that I’m exploring. But no matter what you’re doing, you can be a citizen activist and a citizen diplomat. You’ve already begun to make the connections and partnerships that will give you support throughout your lives. And therefore, I invite you to forge those connections beyond this class.
You’ve learned here at Barnard that in spite of our differences, we are all connected. And we need to be looking for ways to find inspiration from our daily lives. Just a few weeks ago, I read President Spar’s column in the Wall Street Journal
, in which she bravely attempted to write her own application essay for Barnard. She described a typical day in her life, one that involved coordinating her kids’ carpooling, fixing dinner, answering emails, dealing with a mischievous cat, writing a speech on – what else – women and leadership. As I read about the controlled chaos of your president’s life, I thought this sure sounds familiar. And as I look out in the audience today, I see a lot of mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers and family members and friends, and I know that you too have had these experiences.
But no matter how we come to this commencement, we leave knowing that another class of extraordinary young women, who will have the manner and the education to go and not only pursue their own dreams but help bring along others as well, has occurred within this remarkable institution. We all have an opportunity today to do so much more than I even dreamed possible when I sat where you are sitting all those years ago.
As I was listening to Sarah Besnoff’s address and how she was talking about her mother, I had to smile because I often say that in my next life I’m going to come back as my daughter. And I felt a remarkable kinship with Sarah’s mother and with other mothers of my generation and those who came before, like my own mother, who was born before women could vote, that no matter how satisfying our lives have been, how we have put together pieces that add up to a whole that is so important to us and has given meaning to this journey we are on, we look at young women and we think to ourselves: This is a future that women in the history of the world have never been able to imagine, that you leave here empowered in a way that women and girls have never been before. It’s exciting, but it’s daunting. But I know you’re up to it.
Serving the people of the world does not have to be your life’s calling, but I urge you to make it a part of your life, to include it in whatever you decide to do as you start out on this adventure. You are certainly well-prepared, and I wish for each and every one of you an adventure that gives you the same sense of meaning and purpose that you are looking for, and an understanding of how much more you can do with the gifts you have been given, and to decide that you too will try to be those special envoys of the ideals that you believe in.
Godspeed and congratulations. (Applause.)
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