Ruth Simmons gave a brilliant, beautiful and moving commencement address at Smith College, MA on Sunday. Emotional to be back at Smith where she was previously president, she spoke to the students about free speech, about the importance of "tak[ing] good care of your voice" and the power of the opinions of people who disagree with you.
Her perspective is one of a child growing up in the South: "My coming of age was marred by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech," she said. "No forums of open expression existed for me in the Jim Crow south of my early youth. Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of being silenced in this way, it is easy to recognize the danger of undermining free speech."
But what made her speech so perfect for that day was a disappointing event that had happened earlier. A small group of Smith students (less than 500) signed a petition objecting to Christine Lagarde as their commencement speaker because of objections to the policies of the IMF. Christine is the first female leader of the IMF, and a powerful role model of how a woman can change the world, so perfect for Smith College but, given the controversy, she withdrew, as Condoleeza Rice had withdrawn from giving the commencement address at Rutgers a few weeks earlier.
So Ruth spoke about the importance of allowing, and hearing, opposing points of view. How when you speak out, and someone disagrees with you, and then you stand up your voice is stronger. How disagreement is a key part of learning, and freedom, and something we must all protect. And so, how it was limiting free speech to reject Christine Lagarde. The Smith faculty agreed in a HuffPost article and Smith's president, Kathy McCartney, told the students "Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College?"
It is still so new that we, as women, have a strong voice. It needs to be heard and not suppressed, no matter how much we may disagree with some of the voices. The movement to suppress women's voices is alive and strong. In radical Islam in Nigeria, in attacks on Hillary Clinton (she'll be a grandmother -- she can't be president), in the relentless drive to reverse our rights to our own bodies.
Nora Ephron spoke so eloquently about this in her commencement address at Wellesley in 1996 (as Jessica Goldstein reminds us here). Every attack on our path to leadership, and our voices, is an attack on women's progress to equality. To reach the goal of equal opportunity regardless of our gender (or color, or sexual orientation) we must all vigorously pursue equal pay (Jill Abramson stood up and was fired), equal seats at corporate decision making bodies (less than 17 percent of board seats are held by women in the U.S.), equal representation in our governments (still only 20 percent of the U.S. senate and 18 percent of the house are women).
We have a long way to go. But Ruth Simmons strengthened Christine Lagarde's voice on Sunday by reminding the audience of parents (me included), students and faculty, with clarity and passion, that we must speak, and protect our right to speak, and just as importantly protect the right of those who disagree with us to speak, so we can move forward to a world of learning and equality of opportunity.