Beliefnet
Commencement speech delivered at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, May 24, 2003.

I'm very pleased to be here today to address you on this day, your last day of wearing your tassels on the left. I have agonized over this speech, mostly because I don't usually give speeches, or when I do, it's at my house, and nobody listens. I have thought long and hard about how to advise you, inspire you, thrill and excite you over multiple speakers that repeat each word-erd-erd in that sonic-onic-onic Doppler-oppler-oppler effect-ect-ect that makes you want to go to sleep-eep-eep. Meryl Streep-eep-eep put me to sleep-eep-eep. Probably quite a few of you need a great deal of sleep after all of the parties, er, studying, finals and things of Senior Spring. And if you're at all like my college age children, you're used to getting most of your sleep during daylight hours.am I right?

Because I want you not to doze, I decided I should avoid politics. Also, of course, I am in show business, and not allowed to speak about politics. Or, I'm allowed to speak, of course I'm allowed to speak, and never work again. But my problem is: I've never heard of anybody making anything but a political speech in New Hampshire. Nobody makes a speech in New Hampshire unless they're stumping for something, do they? I think it's a state law, isn't it? Your honor? If I have to, by law, make a political speech, you'll sleep. But if I make a speech about sex, you'll wake up. See, it's already working! So I'll make a speech about sexual politics, and I won't be running for anything except, perhaps, cover.

I went to school in New Hampshire 30 years ago as one of the first women to integrate Dartmouth College. We were 60 intrepid girls on a campus of approximately 6,000 men. We tried to lead them, gently, toward a difficult idea (one that UNH has endorsed almost since its inception): the idea that women are valuable to a university. It was not as difficult as convincing the Taliban more recently of the same thing, but I do remember some pitched battles back then. Your graduation class today of nearly 3,000 students is almost 2-to-1 women, and your school is not an anomaly. This imbalance, to differing degrees, is replicated at colleges and universities around the country. In the huge University of California system, women are in a strong majority, averaging around 57 percent of the student population. According to Peterson's Guide, at NYU and Boston University, the percentage is 60-40 women to men. What's going on? And who, 30 years ago, would've ever predicted it? (Maybe the Taliban had a legitimate fear: give them an inch and they'll just take over!)

These statistics are all the more confusing when we acknowledge the fact that the glass ceiling is still in effect in the business world, the professions and politics. Imagine if the Senate were apportioned in the same way as your graduating class! Or that there were twice as many women as men in the House!? Or the White House! Or on cable news!? At the heads of Fortune 500 companies? It's almost unimaginable. You can scan the mastheads of major news organizations, the lists of the top echelons of business and management, the hierarchies of power in government, and it still reads pretty much like it did in the middle of the last century, or the century before that, or the centuries before that. In other words, it's like the membership list of the Augusta Golf Club today.

Why is there this discrepancy between how many women succeed in college and where they actually end up? What happens to all these people after graduation? Back in 1970 we thought that if we had access to the same educational opportunities as men, then the same opportunities would naturally present themselves out it in the Real World. We've more than crashed through the first, the educational barrier, but the other is proving tougher to go up against. It may seem as if universities are optimistically and successfully preparing an unprecedented number of female students for leadership opportunities that don't exist. Many women will confront the attitude of top PGA golfer Vijay Singh when he declared he would rather quit the tournament than play alongside the top-ranked woman in the country. At the highest levels of achievement some men still find humiliation in competing (and potentially coming up short) against women. Why does it hurt more to lose to a girl, unless, deep down, you think girls are worth less than boys? This is an old and deep-seated and in many cases unconscious prejudice; you can circle the globe and find its gnarly roots wrapped around the foundations of many societies. And just like any other prejudice, cultural or racial, it'll take a long time for it to die out. But shrivel it will, because it's basically a negative, regressive, underground impulse that cannot live in the light of a new day. As we continue to see, societies that look backward and keep their women down fail to keep pace in the modern world. We know for our own 80-year battle to claim our rights that the Founding Fathers weren't thinking of women when they wrote the concept of freedom into our Constitution. But you could argue that part of the reason that the West has sustained its ascendancy is due to the exponentially expanding opportunities offered ALL of its citizens.

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