Posted by Sheila Connolly
I said my post of last week was the end of the line for my academic sojourns. Okay, I lied. But this is absolutely, positively the last post in this thread, because my Darling Daughter has graduated. She's moved back into her old bedroom and will be looking for a job (anybody have any good suggestions for a Comparative Literature major?).
But of course we had to have a bang-up, blow-out last ceremony to mark the end of her four years: Commencement. It ate a week of my life. Visiting relatives (some of whom had mobility problems, which is no small issue when the campus is over a hundred acres and events are held at opposite ends); torrential downpours; borrowing a vehicle large enough to transport six adults plus half a dorm room of stuff–we survived it all.
But for me, the high point (second to watching Darling Daughter march across the stage and collect a diploma) was hearing Gloria Steinem speak.
I am old enough to remember a world before Gloria Steinem. When I attended college, during my first year all the rules were in place: no men in the dorms, except Sunday afternoons for two hours, with the door open and three feet on the floor at all times; teas served by grey-haired housemothers; sign-outs for any late arrival, not to mention parental permission for staying off-campus overnight. By the time I graduated, it was "anything goes". It was a fascinating time to be a college student.
But, officially, there was no feminism, before Gloria articulated it. (Go ahead, throw things at me–I know there were plenty of feminists in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But somehow Gloria Steinem crystallized the movement for my generation.) And I'm happy to report that she's just as articulate as ever. Dang it, she still looks just the same. How do you do that, at 70+?
Ms. (say it loud!) Steinem addressed the 600-odd students (and many more parents and friends) gathered before her and acknowledged that she graduated 51 years ago. And then she compared the years since her graduation to what the students might expect from the next fifty years. Case in point: (if I may be permitted to cite portions of her speech, which are posted on the college's website):
"In my generation, we were asked by the...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. ... 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?"
All right, that is a frivolous example (although of course it drew a laugh from the crowd), and of course she spoke of more urgent issues–the importance of valuing child-care providers, pay equality, violence, international slavery–and the need to keep working toward change. But it wasn't all stern rhetoric: "Remember that the end doesn't justify the means, the means are the ends. If we want joy and music and friendship and laughter at the end of our revolution, we must have joy and music and friendship and laughter along the way." Words to live by. Don't lose sight of the goal, but enjoy the process as well. And do it together.
And she says "imagination is a form of planning." Dreaming is a form of planning. Maybe we who are writers need to think about this. For each of us who creates a female protagonist: make her strong and smart. She can be flawed, but let her triumph in the end. We still need role models.
So we sat in the crowded field house (it was still raining, of course) and applauded and cheered (even the parents), and I thought, this woman is an icon. She's larger than life. How many people can say–and truly demonstrate–that they have had a substantial impact on the world? And who, after fifty years, still believe in what they're doing and encourage others to follow? So I say, hallelujah, Gloria!
And I have to add that I am a shameless groupie. While collecting various relatives from diverse locations, my daughter and I came across Ms. Steinem the day before the ceremony, strolling the campus without entourage. Of course we recognized her–who doesn't?–so we stopped to speak with her. She was warm and gracious–admitting that she had just finished writing the speech and was taking a walk to clear her head. I managed not to gush (I even remembered my own name), and then we retreated so that she could continue her walk. How often do we get to meet and talk with icons? I feel honored to have had the opportunity.