Commencement Address

Anita Hill delivered Wellesley’s 2019 commencement address

Good afternoon. Is it afternoon? It’s morning. Good morning!

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Of course, I want to thank President Johnson for that generous introduction, but I also want to thank her for her leadership here at Wellesley. Yes, and in the higher education community at large. Those of us in the community are so grateful that she took on the role of president of Wellesley College three years ago. To the Board of Trustees, Provost Shennan, faculty, staff who made this commencement ceremony possible, thank you.

Please accept my thanks for warmly welcoming me to your campus community. I feel like I’ve been here for days now, but it’s only been a few hours, and I feel like I’m a part of this university. But of course, my biggest thank you goes to the graduating class. I am humbled, by your decision to invite me to be your commencement speaker. So thank you inviting me. I proudly accept the privilege of addressing the extraordinary Wellesley College class of 2019!

Now, this is truly the best day on any academic institution’s calendar, is it not? Graduation day? It comes with a lot of ceremony and celebration, but that’s not really why it’s so special, and I’ll get to why sooner. But a close second is the day you set foot on this campus. Most of you will remember it. But you’ll remember perhaps more all of the things that transpired while you were here. Since arriving, you’ve eagerly approached the opportunity to learn, to grow, to challenge your own way of thinking and engage with others as they challenge theirs. You have proven that you are up to the expectations placed upon you when you got your admissions letter.

In short, you’ve graduated! But there’s more to it than that.

Many of you came to this campus looking for an inclusive community, where you could be your authentic selves. You were looking to find your voice. And you have found a place where you can both be yourselves and exercise your voices. You have learned to live and learn together. And you’ve also learned to lead. When struggles have tested your resolve, you reached out and you found the resources you need, or maybe they found you. Maybe you even had to explain to some people exactly what you needed to be your true self here, on campus.

Either way, you overcame the obstacles that always appear when we are trying to achieve something bigger than ourselves. And of course there were the personal struggles, and there have been references to them before. Your class speaker was so eloquent about them. Kavi told us about the struggles that you have had, the relationships that have soured or didn’t happen at all. Sick parents, or grandparents, your own health issues, death, and financial struggles. In facing those, I know that many of you did the wise thing: You sought help when you needed it, or you accepted help when it was offered to you and someplace, sometimes you had to explain exactly what help you needed. But that came from knowing who you are, knowing yourselves, and knowing your value. Very importantly, you gave help to others when they needed help.

So, before I go on, I just want you to do this for me. I always like to start with thank yous, and so I want to give you the chance to say thank you to your classmates and to yourselves, give a hand. Thank you for being there. And to those people here today, teachers, staff, family, and friends who stood by you, who provided the structures of support that you needed, who listened to your stories when you thought no one would hear, and helped you to continue to believe in yourself so that you could succeed, also give a hand.

You will take away from Wellesley many lessons. Be sure that you take with you a real appreciation for what you have experienced here. A real appreciation for the value of being an active member of a supportive community. Please remember, as you leave, to pass this on, pass it forward, wherever you go. But also remember to give back so that future students can enjoy an even better experience than the one that you’ve had.

Today you may be a little uneasy. Because this is a transition period. The fascinating and fantastic adventure that you have had here is about to come to an end, and the world that you’re going out into is uncertain, at best. So maybe you’re a little, or a lot, uneasy. Leaving the familiar and entering into a world that is exciting and filled with new possibilities, but is also downright scary at times.

There are those who would have you believe that the social, economic, and political issues we face are best resolved by pitting individuals and groups against each other. No matter how tempting it becomes, resist that thinking. This may be the most diverse community some of you have ever lived in, but do not let this be the last diverse community you are a part of.

Even as we have seen hate crimes rise, more hate is not the answer. No matter where you live or work, or go to school, for those of you who are continuing your education, you can always make the choice to engage in inclusion. It is a choice that you have. And it is one that I urge. Just as you must reject isolationism, you must also resist cynicism in these troubling times.

Taking stock of the world today, I know that you are going to at some point be disheartened. In my work, I get discouraged. But when I take the long view, I see not only how far we have to go, I also see how far we’ve come. I never believe that the status quo is inevitable. And you shouldn’t, either. Nor should you believe that we have to go back to an even more regressive time. We can move forward. And we will.

So typically, when people talk about the long view, they mean not focusing on the present and keeping long-term goals in sight, but as I’m a descendant of a people who just a few generations before me had no rights, I take a different position. As the first generation in my family to attend college—and some of you are there, too. Give yourself a hand.

So I start at a different place than many when I think about the long view. I start by looking back. I start today, with my maternal grandmother, born in 1874 in rural Texas, and she, by virtue of her race and location, was never offered a public education, and never learned to read or write. She had her first child when she was 14 and went on to give birth to 13 other children, three of whom died before they reached the age of 4. She had little control over her own body, whether for work or childbearing, and few resources to devote to her children’s health, but my grandmother, Ida, had joy and independence.

Though married to a church deacon, my grandfather, Henry, and with sisters-in-law who were ministers, she loved to dance. And she did dance. And she boasted about dancing. Perhaps she saw the prospect of a better future for her children, and maybe the dancing was a sign of the joy of what she hoped would come about for them. Perhaps she saw the prospect when no one else did. So, even in the midst of desperate times, of rank bigotry and little hope for change, my grandmother took the long view. She saw to it that her children, including my mother, born in 1911, went on to school. My mother, who had her first child when she was 16, had me when she was 44. She, like her mother, and even though racism and sexism overshadowed our opportunities, Erma Hill, my mom, scrimped and scraped to give her children a chance to attend college. And while my father was not completely convinced that education was really the way out for his children, he got the picture and went along with her vision.

With her sixth-grade education, my mother modeled lifelong learning and in her own way taught me how to learn, to live, and to lead. She read throughout her life, mostly the Bible or her Sunday-school book, Reader’s Digest as well. I don’t even know that it exists anymore. But she also read our local newspaper, to keep herself informed. And she wrote letters to me regularly during my college years, chronicling farm, church, and family life. And though she passed away years ago, when I read her letters, I hear her voice. And the lessons that she was teaching me, perhaps not even knowing, and preparing me for the life that I have today that is so vastly different from hers. But as I read her letters and I think about both her and her mother, I wonder what all my grandmother and mother might have done with their lives, and said about their lives, had they had the language and liberty to speak. My mother and grandmother inspire me to dig deeply to find the truth, because I know that there are so many voices like theirs yet to be heard.

Now, when I was where you are today, I knew the world wasn’t perfect. Wasn’t perfect for me, it certainly hadn’t been perfect for my mother or my grandmother, but I believed in that moment, in 1973, when I started college, and then in 1977 when I graduated from college, I believed we were on the verge of monumental change. I believed that the movements of the ’60s and ’70s would allow us to sprint toward equality for all, that we could end racism and we could end sexism and poverty could be vanquished.

I was idealistic, but as a beneficiary of a hard-won battle to make this a more inclusive country in the form of Brown vs. the Board of Education, I knew then that change is possible. Well, we still have lots of work to do, and what I once thought was a sprint to equality has turned out not to be so. I no longer even think it is a marathon. I now see it as a relay, and I now see that the baton that will point the way to social justice must be passed from generation to generation. And it must continue, no matter how long it takes us to reach our goal.

As our understanding of what true equality means has expanded, we now know that my parents’ generation’s definition of equality and the tactics that worked in the 20th century must evolve to address the challenges of the 21st century. By necessity, and through knowledge, the categories that we once thought were set have expanded; discrimination based on race, gender, and poverty was something that were our touch points, and now we know that we must address discrimination based on gender, sexual identity, gender identity, race, disability, class, age, and religion.

Because what we know is that inequalities are complex, and they are entrenched, maybe much more than we had imagined. We need new thinking.

And where gender violence is concerned, the challenges are immense. I cannot sugarcoat it. The numbers speak for themselves. The National Institutes of Health have noted that, since college entry, 22 percent of students report experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault. Women and nonbinary students reported the highest rates: 28 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

Although men experience less, 12.5 percent of men also report sexual assault. Now, if these figures were attached to any other condition, we would all hear our government saying, “This is a public crisis.” But we must call it for what it is: a public crisis that needs to be addressed.

And unfortunately, sexual harassment, abuse, and assault do not end with college days. A recent anonymous Department of Defense survey revealed that between 2016 and 2018, sexual harassment and assault in our military rose by 38 percent. And according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2018, charges alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12 percent from fiscal year 2017, and maybe the rise can be attributed to the fact that more people are coming forward, but what we also know is that sexual assault, sexual harassment, are underreported. So really, we do not know exactly how many people are being affected by this kind of conduct. And yet, there are those who would have us believe that the stories and statistics showing the prevalence of sexual misconduct are a hoax, they prefer to believe in their own myths, often misogynist, about the behavior, and, despite the evidence, sexual misconduct deniers have friends in high places. Not just that place.

One high-profile pundit criticized campus assault policies as the invention of progressives to promote victimhood as a “coveted status” and deniers and enablers—we know from the news—include boards, corporate leaders, and attorneys who engage in symbolic compliance and refuse to reform the cultures and structures that support sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation in their own institutions when they know they exist. So the problem is not just the behavior. It’s the enabling that goes along with it. But, but! We are fortunate. We outnumber them. We are louder than they are. And we are ready to take them on!

Now, it’s tempting, when you hear it denied and you hear misinformation and disinformation, to scream at your computers, or your newspapers, or your television sets. You probably don’t resort to those things. I still do. But here’s where we are today, and this is what I want you to remember: We cannot squander the powerful voices of the millions whose individual and collective voices have become known as the #MeToo movement. We cannot squander this moment.

We must use the energy and the awareness that they have raised by bravely sharing their stories and laying to rest the lie that sexual misconduct is a fiction. The #MeToo movement of 2017 was enabled by social scientists and legal scholars and millennial campus activists like many of you today. It was birthed by Tarana Burke in 2006. It has been supported. It didn’t just happen by itself. It happened as a cultural eruption of work that had been done for decades and much of it on our college campuses.

You, the class of 2019, have benefited from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, educating us all about intersectionality.  And because of that work, many in the #MeToo movement were able to show that skin color, economic class, and gender and sexual identity can shape whether women are believed and how institutions respond to them when they are believed. And if they are believed.

The #MeToo movement engaged men in the campaign to end sexual violence by allowing them the space to talk about their own sexual abuse and forcing all of us to abandon noxious and dangerous notions about masculinity that serve no one.

By capturing the language and taking command of a stage that had been hostile to women’s voices (the internet), the movement allowed an unprecedented public conversation to happen. For me, the movement became the bridge to what can become the policies and practice that eradicate gender violence once and for all. But our leaders must engage and respond by passing laws to protect against it and to prevent it from happening. And yes, yes, for those of you who are attorneys out there, yes, we can pass the laws to protect victims and allow victims to become survivors.  We can pass the laws to protect victims without violating the rights of the accused, and we will and we must.

So in passing the baton, I want to talk about you, the class of 2019, and this is where you come in. So the movement to end gender violence is just the start. There must be new movements that tell the truth about our experiences and point the ways to solutions in many arenas. There must be a truth in science movement. Your generation of scientists must bridge the science divide that excludes the participation of people based on their marginalized identities. Professor Evelynn Hammonds has called it out as one of the greatest threats to equality that we face today, the science divide, and I could not agree more. But I also look out and I see in the faces of the scientists, those of you who are graduating with a degree in science, and those who are moving on to gain other degrees, I see the ability to take on this challenge and have a movement, and lead a movement of your own. Are you up for it?

Now, many of you have had the privilege of learning what it means to be a Marxist, feminist, antiracist, and ecological economist in Professor Mathaei’s classroom, so I know that you are ready to lead the truth in economics movement. Will you be the economist who will develop new ways of modeling and measuring economic contributions across gender diversity? Will you be the economist who will close the gender-race-wealth gap? I see you. I see the future, and I see it’s possible.

A truth in psychology movement—psychology was my major, so I want you there.  You can shine a light on the need for healing individuals and fixing institutions. Fixing institutions that perpetuate the harm caused by disparities, and healing individuals who experience them. We have not begun to tap into our understanding of the real price of disparities and disadvantage in our country. And that’s where you come in. So, my fellow psychologists in the room, thank you for what you’re going to do in the future.

I also know that we have got to do more than use the language and the ideas that we have enjoyed for the last 10, 15 years and that you have been schooled under. I know that we need new platforms, and I know that in this group there are some journalists, there are some computer scientists, from your generation who will provide the platforms for sharing the experiences of those individuals who are marginalized, whether in science or economics or psychology or health. And there are political scientists and lawyers who will turn those experiences into legislation, policy, and legal precedents that will reflect the experiences of those routinely ignored or deliberately neglected. That’s what we need. Whether it’s in economics, science, health, law, or any number of other areas.

You have an advantage, class of 2019. You have been schooled in queer, feminist, critical, race, and intersectional studies and theories. You’ve had the benefit of Professor Steady in Africana studies. You have the new way of thinking that we need, that the world needs.

And I’m sure as Wellesley graduates, you have your own ideas about movements that you want to lead, and I am here to support you as you as we together bend the arc toward freedom. That’s what it means to pass the baton along. And I pass the baton but I do not leave you.

In closing, I would just say that I’m here because in 1991, under the glare of intense political scrutiny and media scrutiny, I shared more of the whole of what it’s like to be a woman, to be black, and to be a black woman facing sexual harassment than perhaps anyone had done publicly before. Certainly more than my grandmother or my mother could share, and more, unfortunately, than many women and men and all people of all genders can share today. Twenty-eight years later, I have the privilege to speak my mind freely; having found my voice, my ancestors’ stories remind me that I must never take it for granted and I must never abuse it.

Today when I look to the future, I look to you, and I am reminded by you that I must never, ever give up my voice. And I will not. So class of 2019, live, learn, and lead. You’ve lived, you’ve learned, yes? Are you ready to lead?

Yes you are, and I believe you will, and I look forward to seeing where you will take us in the future.

Thank you!