This past Friday, I attended my alma mater’s commencement services to watch my younger friends graduate, wonder at the year that had passed since my own graduation, and stare in awe at the commencement speaker: Hillary Clinton.
The cloudy New England weather had forced the graduates into a large tent and alumnae into an academic building for a livestream of the event. I hugged my friends before they processed, and then settled into a room of eager alumnae. There was an undeniable sense of sadness in the room, at the knowledge that the speaking Secretary could have been President, but for the first time in months there was also hope in the air.
I wrote with forced optimism about the legacy of women’s colleges after Secretary Clinton’s tragic loss last November. An alumna of Clinton’s alma mater myself, I had developed a profound belief in the political power of women—that shattered the moment the glass ceiling failed to. Not only had I recently joined the working world where clients and neighbors questioned my ability at every turn, but I had witnessed an election that emphasized the sexist climate of my country.
Visiting Wellesley for Commencement 2017 felt a lot like, as Clinton herself remarked, returning home. The campus was familiar, the faces of professors and students well-known, and the political atmosphere welcoming. As the graduates prepared to leave, students and alumnae took a moment to appreciate the ideological home Wellesley had become or once been for each of us. And the theme of the day’s ceremonies quickly emerged: women’s colleges, like all communities committed to diversity, must resist the new administration.
Clinton’s speech certainly engaged with these issues, but hers was not the first or only to do so. As Commencement began, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Tiffany Steinwert led the invocation, and reminded students of their place in a community “fortified by the twin values of resistance and persistence.” College President Paula Johnson welcomed students’ families from across the country and world, but sorrowfully acknowledged the families that could not be there due to immigration policies. And student speaker Tala Nashawati delivered a powerful critique of current politics and appreciation for diverse communities, declaring: “It’s okay to be queer, trans, an immigrant, a person of color, a faithful believer of any faith—or, like me, the daughter of two Syrian immigrants who worked and worked and worked so I could stand on this stage.”
By the time Clinton took to the podium, the scene was set. This was not to be a graduation speech of simple advice-giving, but a radical reminder that we must live the values we learn.
Clinton spoke of her own days as a student at Wellesley College, and described a kind of commitment to bettering the world that I saw in each of my peers while at Wellesley myself. The first Wellesley student to give a commencement address, Clinton reminisced about the night she spent awake with her friends planning the speech. She reflected on the academic lessons she had learned as a student—particularly rigorous and critical analysis—and the issues that her generation had faced at that time—memories of the Vietnam war and the approaching Nixon impeachment. Ultimately, in that 1969 speech, Clinton remarked on the work of politics as the art of making the impossible possible.
In her 2017 speech last week, Clinton gave a fierce critique of the Trump administration, but, perhaps even more importantly, she also reminded the graduates of the good work that they can and must do in these times.
Acknowledging that students may be called “nasty women” along the way, Clinton urged the Wellesley community—students, graduates, and alumnae alike—to fight on. She spoke about the work that her generation did to “[turn] back a tide of intolerance and [embrace] inclusion” in the 1960s and the fear and uncertainty that they felt before the impeachment of a president charged with obstruction of justice a decade later (a reference to current and past events). But above all, Clinton emphasized that “our country, like this college, was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment.”
Encouraging the graduating seniors to protect reason and free debate, Clinton’s advice was that they go into the world prepared to fight voter suppression, alternative facts, and sexism. Though she had not been able to shatter it, Clinton pressed graduates to make “millions of more cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling.” And, though we wish it were not so, she reminded listeners that “it is often during the darkest times that you can do the most good.”
Clinton’s address, as others have remarked, clearly admonished the current administration. But, hers was also a speech for the generation that will shatter the glass ceiling. Though challenges abound and the fight will be hard, Clinton reminded students of the ever important work of making the impossible possible.