Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2003 Commencement

American University
College of Arts & Sciences Commencement Address
Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
May 11, 2003

I Thank you President Ladner, honored graduates, distinguished faculty, loving mothers…Happy Mothers Day…generous fathers, supportive relatives, I thank you for letting me share this great occasion with you. You members of the graduating classes have reached a landmark date, especially for those of you are undergraduate graduates, one of the few that will stick with you always, the year of your birth, of your graduation from college, of your marriage, of your first child, perhaps the year you receive your Nobel prize. These and not many more will be the milestones of your life. I graduated from college in 1957 almost half a century ago and there have been many changes in college life since then. There is a temptation to color past memories rather too rosily, to look back on them as the good old days. But all I have to do is look around at this group of classes to know that they were no such thing. The good old days are now let me say why.

Ten years ago I attended the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco. There was a lunch in a huge ballroom for the women's caucus of the bar association. Shortly before then there had been no such thing and some officers of the association said there never would be and never should be. But by 1993 the caucus was a powerful part of the meeting. Before the formal program began at that lunch. The woman presiding at the dais said she had a few questions to ask. How many of those women present were the first women to be editor of her law school journal, would they please stand? What looked like several dozen stood. How many who were the first women to be made a senior partner in her firm? More stood. How many had been the first to found her own firm in her own town? How many the first to be made dean of a law school? Made a federal prosecutor? Made a state judge? Made a federal judge? Hundreds and hundreds of women were standing by now and no wonder there are 1300 women judges in America at this moment. The women at the dais told those standing to give themselves a round of applause and they did thunderously. Here was a tremendous revolution and it had all been accomplished in their lifetime, with the older women present as pioneers and the younger as their beneficiaries. And I thought, the same thing is happening to women in all walks of life, in the academy in general, in business, in medicine, in science, even in the least likely places, in the military of all things, in religious ministries.

The campus where I teach has two Protestant seminaries on it, whose libraries I constantly use. When I went there 23 years ago, members of the faculty were all male and all white and so were almost all the students. Now I see mainly women when I go there. It would be hard to exaggerate the profundity of social change that this represents if you alter the status of women, you transmit society at its inmost nexus. You change the relationship of wife to husband, mother to children, daughter to parents and siblings. So no other change could go deeper into our social makeup it's a point of tremendous pride and achievement for our time that we are the first society in history to take seriously the claim that women are men's equals. This is just part of a larger social revolution played out in the last part of the 20th century. The rights of blacks and other minorities were given full recognition, the rights of gays, greater acceptance of different religions, of Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims. All of that has developed at a tremendous rate given the historical rate of change and the depth of feelings that had to be altered. Some are even saying that now we go too far in honoring human rights. What an odd complaint to make of a people.

Each one of these strides has enriched us all, not just of the groups directly effected. The president of one of those seminars I mentioned told me that his place is academically and in every other way better for the advent of women in the ministry. So, as I look at graduating classes now, at diverse faculties and student bodies, I see how much better college life is than it was in my time.

My friend Stud Turkle says that the great generation was not that which fought a war but that which brought about such deep human changes in society and he said the 1960s deserve most of the credit for it. Some look back on that time and see only riots and excess but the quiet work of changing society is better marked by the 15 women who graduated Harvard law school in 1964 along with 500 male students. Those women went on to be judges and other esteemed members of their profession. One of them was Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. But as law students they were made to feel unwelcome and impertinent at the Harvard campus, people who should not have been there. At a dinner held for them the dean asked each of them individually to defend herself against this question. "Why are you at Harvard law school taking the place of a man?"

One professor refused to call on women in class saying they are to easily rattled. Too soft voiced to be heard. Too little able to stand up to his withering questions. He was a cocky World War II officer returned home to show that law is a man's world. He thought he was marginalizing some temporary intruders into his domain, but he is the one whose views proved temporary. As some said then, "How dare the woman take the place of a man" some now say how dare a black man take the place of a white man in college. They do not reflect that blacks make up only twelve percent of the population, so six percent are males and about one percent of that is of college age, not in the army not tied down to work, high school graduate with good grades. Hardly a number that can crowd out white men.

Corporate and military leaders are telling Supreme Court right now how great a social gain it is right now to include representatives of all the society in the whole range of its activities. The recognition of others rights benefits us all. In the case of women, it makes us profit by the freeing of the talents of half the human race. To complete the woman whether mother, daughter, wife is to complete the man. It creates a mature relationship. By contrast those who would deny others rights do sever damage to themselves. Just think of that poor Harvard professor, wooing himself in with the ignorance that could treat women as ignorant. He disgraced himself at the end of a proud career. So to honor the humanity of others is the only way we can keep our own humanity and in this your generation has a tremendous head start. Coming on the cusp of the great social revolution you can take pride in carrying it on to completion. The good old days are today. But with your help tomorrow will be the better old days.