Blanche Lambert Lincoln

Commencement Address at Randolph-Macon Women's College - 2000

Blanche Lambert Lincoln
May 27, 2000— Lynchburg, Virginia
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Good morning and thank you so much.

To you graduates, this is a very awesome task that I have. As I stand here before you, but also the faculty, who carefully instructed me as I walked down in the procession that they only remembered my involvement and not my grades. I was very pleased to hear that.

But it is a delightful morning, a wonderful morning for me to be here to join you. It is a great honor for me to be here today and it is also with an enormous sense of pride that I address you today, as the youngest women in the history of our country to serve in the United States Senate. And of course, as a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College.

I'd like to thank you all for thinking enough of me to invite me to be a part of this very special day, and I'd also like to add a very special thanks to our President Kathleen Bowman for her kindness and her patience in dealing with me and my office; she's been absolutely wonderful.

And as a young mother of twin boys who will be four next month, I'd also like to wish all of the moms in the audience a very happy Mother's Day. As the youngest of four children in my own family, I can certainly remember my graduation day and I'm sure the mothers in the audience feel much as my mother did, that they have waited just as long as you have for your graduation.

Today I'm fortunate to have this opportunity to address a remarkable group of women who will have a long-lasting and important influence over young and old in our society of this nation.

You know it doesn't seem like that long ago that I sat where you're sitting now, thinking, "What am I going to do now?" Many of you may have concrete ideas about what you're going to do next and what your future holds, but if you're like I was, you may not be so sure about what lies ahead for you.

I distinctly remember my first trip to the career office here at Randolph-Macon. I went in and they asked me, "So what is that you want to do with your life?" and I remember thinking to myself, "Well, if I knew that, I wouldn't be here." So it's okay that you may not know exactly what it is that you want to do. I certainly never in my wildest dream envisioned becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Senate.

And speaking of young and old – you know, I'm closer to your age than I'm the majority of my colleagues in the United States Senate. That's important; it's very important for you to know.

When I came to the United States Senate, of course Bob Burn, who is in his late 80s, and Strom Thurmond, who is in his late 90s, were quite shocked by me, not sure what to do with me. And then it occurred to Strom, he looked at me and he said, "You know, I have granddaughters that are your age." And I said, "Yes sir, and you know, Senator, I bet they are very glad that I am here." And he looked at me and he said, "You know, they are. They knew who you were," and I said, "Exactly."

As young women, each of you will be in a position to make an impression over the people you come in contact with. Any action, any contribution or statement, however small it may seem you, can have an immeasurable effect on the people around you, and in turn on our whole society, and you have the power to make a difference.

Last year, we in the United States Congress honored one of my role models, Rosa Parks, a famous and inspirational women, by giving her the congressional honor for her bravery and persistence in the face of adversaries. I grew up during integration in the South. It's a big part of my life and it's a big part of who I am, being able to understand strength in diversity.

You all may not know, however, that there is a women behind Rosa Parks who didn't receive the attention that she did, and probably never in her wildest dreams realized the enormous effect that she had on Rosa Parks and ultimately on race relations in our society. That woman was Rosa Parks' Sunday school teacher. She taught Rosa a very important lesson, that we are all equal in God's eyes.

The grownup Ms. Parks took this lesson with her throughout life. Her basic refusal to sit at the back of the bus caught the attention of Martin Luther King, and in turn helped to bring about great social and civil rights reforms in our country. Dr. King used her story to unite our nation and to inspire others.

The social changes led by King in this country, then prompted revolutionaries around the world such as Lech Walesa, who brought down the Berlin Wall and facilitated the rebirth of democracy in countries throughout Europe. So Rosa Parks and her Sunday school teacher's seemingly small action made a lasting impression for generations to come.

One of the reasons I ran for Congress is a lesson that I was taught by my parents. My father told each of us, is that I don't ever want to hear a single one of you all complain about something, that you're not willing to do something about. Now mind you, when I returned home at the age of 30 as a young single women to run for Congress, my father said he didn't mean for me to take him quite so literally.

So there may be things you return home and your parents look at you and say, "Oh, my gosh! Where did you get that idea?" But each one of us has the power to change things, although we never know when our actions might inspire others.

Just think, think in your mind of the impression that those here at Randolph-Macon have made on you in these four years. I look back and realize the lessons I learned here, the people who touched my life in small ways – what a difference it has made to me.

You, you are the first class of this new millennium, and as women you have an unprecedented chance and opportunity to truly come into your own, individually, and as a gender in the 21st century.

In politics in 1992…. 1992 became known as the year of the women. More women than ever before were elected to office and the power of the gender gap and women's voting block became hot topics of the year. I was one of those women in 1992 that broke those barriers and came to Washington as one of the largest class of members since the 1940s.

Well, for one, I don't think we'll ever stop having to prove ourselves. People want to know, when will it that women truly break through that glass ceiling? Never. Complacency will be our own demise. Not just as women, but as individuals, we must continually fight to gain the respect of others and to respect our differences as well.

My mother always told me, if you want a man to treat you like a lady, you need to treat him like a gentlemen. The simple lesson is one I've carried with me through life and it's been a valuable mantra to live by in my career. Not because I'm a women, but because I want to do well, just as you do.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, no one can make you inferior without your consent. If I want my colleagues in the United States Senate to treat me as an equal, I treat them as one. I work hard to build friendships and working relationships. I gain respect by showing up in hearings and meetings, by being prepared. I do my homework and I hope that because I show up to the table prepared and with the attitude that I have something to contribute and I have someone to fight for in the people of Arkansas, I will prove myself and win the respect of my male and female colleagues.

As Margaret Thatcher said, in politics, if you want anything said, ask a man, if you want anything done, ask a women. Women like Patty Murray from Washington State, who has led the way in reducing class size for elementary schools. Or my colleague from the South, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is the first Democratic woman ever on the Armed Services Committee, and Dianne Feinstein who has helped raise millions of dollars for breast cancer research by writing a law to create breast cancer awareness stamps. These women are doing an excellent job representing the views of women across the country.

I'm not suggesting that all women feel the same way about every issue on our national agenda. We may disagree on the details of policy, but one thing we know for sure – it's critically important to express our opinion.

You leave this college with that obligation to speak out, to have an opinion, to stand firm in your belief and to ensure that you're playing an active role, because you cannot gripe about things that you're not willing to do something about.

Getting involved in the debate, just as I did recently when I joined and helped to create a group of moderate Democrats to propose a bold, new way to improve our system of education. We educate 92% of our children in this nation in the public school system and we can't abandon those children. We have to take the bold steps necessary to strengthen public education and provide our children with the tools that they will need to succeed in the 21st century. The status quo is no longer good enough. To meet the high-tech industry that is out there, what children are going to need to know, we have got to improve in our public education.

I'm also working on healthcare issues, particularly improving long-term care and providing a prescription drug plan for the elderly of this nation. While it may seem that it's just something that affects seniors, it really affects us all. My parents are on Medicare and I know that if it is a program that is not solid and well suited with the prescription for a drug plan for them, then I myself will be financially responsible for those individuals. It's not just an issue for the elderly. It's an issue for you, the future of this nation.

Another issue I've devoted a lot of time to is Social Security, particularly for many reasons that you should be interested. We're reforming a system which was created in the 1930s, but it's critical to women. We as women are in and out of the work force more frequently, because of having children and taking care of aging parents and sick family members. We also get paid less than men do. Pay equity is another issue, a whole another issue for a whole another day, but I can talk on it forever. On average, women live seven years longer. We're far more dependent on the Social Security system, that didn't even account for us in 1935, because women weren't prevalent in the workforce. How essential it is to be involved in that debate as we reform a program that we, as opposed to our male counterparts in society, are far more dependent on.

Now while you may think that I'm involved in these issues because they are typical women's issues, I'm also playing a role in the debate over agriculture. I'm the only women that sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee and I'm one of the very few members of that Agriculture Committee that has actually walked rice levees and scouted cotton and chopped down weeds in a soybean field. So I have a particular experience to bring to that committee.

Tax reform and trade issues. I'm one of the lead senators in the issues of opening up trade markets for American products as we move into a global economy. All because these issues are important to our state and to this country.

You can't assume that a women is involved in an issue, because of her gender.

As one of the nine women currently serving in the United States Senate, I'm also wary of attempts to lump women together into one homogeneous constituency. The women I know both personally and professionally are diverse and strong in their own ways. They think, want and believe different things, despite what pollsters will tell you. There is no true women's voting block, and there shouldn't be. We're strong minds and strong souls. We should be approached as individuals.

Women of all backgrounds and walks of life must recognize that our strength come through our diversity and our individuality. We can be our own worst enemy. We must come to respect our differences, rather than criticize each other for them. True respect is an appreciation of the separateness and the differences between people. Of the things that make another person unique. Women will only truly come into their own, when we support one another for our differences and the choices that we make.

A perfect example of this is the unspoken tension between working women and stay-at-home moms. More often than not, one group criticizes the other for the choices that they've made. What we should do is realize that these differences are natural and they are necessary. We can't all be the same and we can't all be happy with the same things.

You will be faced with many choices. Remember, that's what life is all about. And also remember those choices come at different times in your life. You would never want to eat an entire pie in one sitting. Take each piece of that pie and enjoy it, as you make those choices and reach your fullest potential in each of those choices.

Every family makes their own decisions about what works best for them. We need women in the workforce and we need women at home. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive, nor is one life style better than the other. Just because I'm a working women, doesn't mean I'm any less of a mom.

The nine women in the United States Senate today are extraordinarily diverse. We are Democrats and Republicans, young and old, from all regions of this country and of many different backgrounds. We have varied perspectives on things, yet share the common goal of wanting to improve our government and our country. We want to make things better for our children.

While those on the outside looking in at our small group may try to lump us all together, we fight against those stereotypes and we draw strength from our differences. You must, too. We work together on some issues and in opposition on others. On rare occasions, we all make the opportunity to get together. We also share personal stories about our families, talk about the challenges of living in two places at once and show off pictures of our children and our grandchildren. The women of the United States Senate make a difference individually, not simply as a group.

That is the challenge before you today. We all bring different attributes to the table, and we all work hard to win the respect of our colleagues, male and female alike. I hope that we're paving the way for all women to recognize that we truly do draw strength through our diversity and to remind women – especially you, the women of this new millennium – that we are only limited from within and you are, too.

Politics, of course, is not the only arena where women can make a difference and are paving the way for other women to come into their own. As U.S. News and World Report recently put it – "The new generation of American CEOs, they're young, they're wired, they're fearless, and they are females" – what I hope for you.

Take Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, or Meg Whitman, founder of eBay, or Heather Blease, the founder of Envisionet and the mother of three young boys. These women have made choices in their lives to bring this type of fulfillment and success. How exciting that that is what faces you here today.

Or considering other women like my sister, who has spent years teaching in the Arkansas public schools. Or my neighbor who dedicates 40 hours a week to caring for others, volunteering at the local hospital and elsewhere. Or my cousin who finds joy in being a stay-at-home mom and always has. These women are also successful, fulfilled and making a great contribution.

One lesson we can learn from them is that destiny is not a matter of chance. For you, it is a matter of choice. The people who get on in this world are the same people who get up and look for the circumstances that they want. And if they can't find them, they make them. They go after their own happiness and they respect the choices of others.

You have put in four years or more of study at this institution, and are now ready to go out into what some would like to call the real world. Here you learned in a classroom. Out there, the classroom is everywhere, and the teachers are everyone you come in contact with, everyone that you have the potential of touching.

What the real world is, of course, depends upon who you are, and what you choose to make of it. After today, you will go out into this real world, and whether you land in Virginia Beach, Los Angeles or New York City, you will have outstanding opportunities in this great country.

I have. I've made my choices. I've worked hard to get there. None of it has been easy. Every race that I have run, I have had opposition at every juncture. My husband says I never like to do anything in the easy way. But I knew I could do it, and you can, too, at anything that you choose.

My final advice to you is simple. Know that absolutely everything that you could possible want is within your grasp. That advice is simple. Be happy, and support one another. Recognize that happiness for every person comes in different shapes and sizes. Respect the decisions of your peers, just as you would ask them to respect and support your own choices. The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything. They just make the most of everything that comes along their way. If you are happy, your happiness is infectious. It can spread to others, on and on to your co-workers, your neighbors, your family, your friends. Your small actions remember can bring about great things.

What a wonderful, wonderful way to come into your own.

Randolph-Macon Woman's College class of 2000, congratulations and good luck. The wonderful things that you have gained here at this precious, precious institution will take you far. May you have enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trial to make you strong, enough sorrows to keep you human, and enough hope to make you happy.

Thank you for allowing me to be just a small part of this special day. Good luck.

Speech from Great Speeches: Today's Women, Volume 4. Greenwood, IN: Educational Video Group, 2014.