Ann Richards

Commencement Address to Mount Holyoke College - May 28, 1995

Ann Richards
May 28, 1995— South Hadley, Massachusetts
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Thank you very much.

Thank you very much. I want to salute the forethought of the architects of this amphitheater. It was so nice that they realized that I needed to be in the shade and you needed to be in the sun. And because of our juxtaposition here I'll be mercifully brief.

When I was invited to be a part of this commencement I knew that the distinguishing characteristic of Mount Holyoke was that the students here are given a firm indoctrination and a drive in public service. My friend, Jane Hickie, Class of 1970, and I have shared about 20 years of that drive in the fast lane of Texas politics. And I would like all of you to know that she's represented you well in Texas and in Washington, DC. When their 25th college reunion approaches, most people get new wardrobes, or they rent expensive cars, or visit the plastic surgeon for one last skirmish trying to deal with that war against gravity. Jane has to make do with bringing along her old friend...who is terrifically flattered by your invitation...and the receipt of this honorary degree. I think I deserve this honorary degree....(applause) I told my friends at home they now had to call me, Doctor Governor. (laughter). It is wonderful to get a Doctorate of Laws. I was married to a lawyer for 30 years, so I earned it.

Someone asked me to begin by giving you some insight into "the unique nature of the Texas political environment." Well, let me put it this way. I come from a short line of women governors. The only other woman that was governor of Texas was a woman named Miriam Amanda Ferguson...and she was called "Ma" Ferguson because she was married to "Pa" Ferguson. Anyway, Ma ran a couple of times--initially she was elected Governor because Pa had been impeached.

I was born the same year that she took office the last time she was elected. But, what's important for me to tell you about Ma, was her gaining undying notoriety when there was a big issue in Texas, and that was whether or not children were going to be punished for speaking Spanish in the public schools. When Ma was asked what she thought about the issue she said, "If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ it was good enough for the school children of Texas." I tell you that so that you know that we have learned something and made some progress in Texas in the last 50 or so years.

Just a few months after I was elected you can imagine what it's like, there's a great deal of turmoil going on, the legislature was already in session, the issues were already hot and heavy, I was trying to assemble a staff, plan an inauguration with all of the attendant balls and marches and such, and we received word that the Queen of England was coming to visit Texas. And I don't know how many of you have entertained the Queen but it's a very complicated deal. We all had to go to school to learn, not to touch the elbow and things like that. I had to go have a dress made. One of those sort of suitable, Queenly looking outfits with the silk pleated skirt and the raw silk jacket and bright color. After all of this preparation, obviously we were nervous and we wanted the visit to go very well. I was running across the Rotunda of the Capitol building to wait there on the front steps for the Queen and Prince Phillip, and racing through my mind came my mother's voice just as clear as a bell, saying, "Where do you think you're going, to see the Queen of England?" Here, some 40 years later I was! At the conclusion of the Queen's visit, after she had gone to a number of Texas cities, there was a dinner in Houston that was hosted by the Queen and by Prince Phillip to repay the gestures we had extended to them on their visit. They had invited all of the mayors of the cities that they had visited. There we all were in our finery standing in the receiving line, at one end was the Mayor of Houston, who was then Kathy Whitmeyer, then the Queen and Prince Phillip, then here I am. These mayors started coming through the receiving line, the mayor of Houston, mayor of Dallas, the mayor of San Antonio, of Corpus Christi, of Galveston, of San Marcos -- and they were all women.

Prince Phillip turned and looked at me and looked at them, and then he said to the Queen, "I say, it looks rather like a matriarchy." And without batting an eye, the Queen said, "I think that's rather nice, don't you?" Despite the Queen's good wishes, Texas is no where near a state of matriarchy. Which is fine...because matriarchy is not what we are all after. We have learned that when the scales are weighted in favor of one gender or one race or one privileged background, no one in society is very well served.

When my grandmother was a girl, according to Texas law, the only people who could not vote were, "idiots, imbeciles, the insane and women." And of course the idea of minorities voting -- at least without directed supervision -- was beyond the pale. Before the mid-1950's women could not serve on juries. And, it surprises a lot of young women now to learn that there were places in this country where we could not get credit in our own names until the mid-seventies. I was working for a young woman I had helped elect to the Texas legislature, Sarah Weddington, who argued the Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court, and Sarah and I worked very hard on a bill that would allow women to get credit because at that time you could be earning your own living, but if you wanted a loan you had to take your brother or your father or your husband or someone suitable respectable and male, to go down to the bank with you and vouch for you. I saw something in Newsweek the other day about Hillary Clinton's visit to the Far East and to India...and about the Grameen Rural Bank that lends money to poor people in developing nations to help them start their own businesses. They have actually begun giving preference to women when they make loans, because the payback rate is better...and while the men tended to spend the money they made on themselves, women spent it on children and their businesses. They said at the bank that the social benefits were simply much greater when women got the money. Which is a conclusion that I'm delighted to promote and one that proves that if we are given the opportunity, indeed we can perform and perform well.

Now, truly that is all we have ever been honest chance to show what we can do. It should not come as a surprise that when I began my involvement in politics, women made the coffee and men made the decisions. But with more of us running for and winning public office, we are seeing fundamental changes in the public perception of women in public service. We are at an awkward and rather wonderful stage where people invest us with remarkable attributes. They believe we are more honest, and less likely to protect the status quo...and they are more ready now than ever to vote for us.

I can still remember a time when constituents might get us off in a corner for a little quiet chit-chat and inquire if we hated our father or something. Because, after all, why else would we want this "man's job." The great majority of us -- men and women -- I hope have gotten past that point. As more of us hold public office, we're finding out that we are human after all, that we have our attributes -- and we have our shortcomings. But we are still a long way from that complete equality and full participation that has been our goal for generations...or at least for more than 20 years for some of us. All the studies and polls show that many people share the viewpoint of one of Lily Tomlin's characters in "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." That "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up." And that applies to government more than most institutions. For all of you sitting there, with your sun flowers, your mortarboards, I hope you will not give in to that cynicism. Now that men have learned to make coffee and a few women are in decision-making positions, it would be a calamity to turn away just when we can make the most difference...just when we can be the difference between a system that collapses under its own tired weight and a system that is rejuvenated by fresh faces, fresh voices and fresh ideas.

It is not that women are better than men...but I long ago accepted and I hope you realize that we are different. The most sympathetic and sensitive of our men friends cannot, no matter how hard they try, hear with a woman's ear or process information through a woman's experience. This should not be any great revelation to any of us. Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, minorities have patiently and usually with uncommon gentleness -- tried to explain to Anglos for years that issues are seen differently from inside a black or a brown skin than for those of us who are white.

The experience is different. The perspective is different. The knowing is different. We see it many ways in our society now -- and I see it often in policy deliberations. A debate about funding for mental retardation facilities is changed tremendously by the presence of a parent of with a child with Down's Syndrome. Because the knowing and the understanding is different from a first-hand experience. A dialogue about equal opportunity takes on new meaning and it takes on immediacy when a person of color is sitting in that room. A question of healthcare is enhanced by the presence of someone who has reached their majority years and is terribly concerned about a future that perhaps will not include the very best of care. When I am in a meeting -- and the subject is affirmative action or local government or the public schools -- the nature of the discussion changes because I am a woman, a former county commissioner, a former school teacher. The analogies are endless, but the point is always the same. When you add someone whose understanding is not intellectual, but instinctive -- the whole equation and the whole understanding of changes. Now, I an not suggesting to you that we are needed in the corridors of power because we will make a difference about stereotypical women's issues like sexual harassment or parental leave. Nor am I suggesting to you that women are the only one's who are qualified to deal with those issues. What I am saying is that because our background is different, we pick up different nuances and bring valuable skills to the process...and we bring along the viewpoints of half the population of the United States of America.

The real question for women, and I think for minorities, for all of us who have been excluded in the past, whose noses are flat from peering in that glass window, is what changes will our participation in public service cause. Virginia Woolf wrote: "There they go--our brothers--mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits...preaching, teaching, administering justice, making money. A procession is always a solemn sight. And there, traipsing along the tail end, we go. And that makes a difference. We too can lead the House, can mount those steps and pass in and out of those doors...administer justice, make money. But we must ask ourselves, on what terms shall we join the procession?" Virginia Woolf wrote that at a time when it was not at all certain that women would join the procession...when we were watching the show from a discreet Victorian distance.

In an incredibly short time, we have moved from watching at the end of the processions...and now, we move, with our brothers, to the head of the procession and into leadership. And what, Virginia might ask are our terms? Of the procession, we ask that our perspective as women be valued. But of ourselves, we ask more: that our participation makes our society more just; makes it more humane; makes our government more determined to meet the needs of all the human beings who live in it. Last evening I had a wonderful dinner with many of the professors from the Department of Politics. Jean Grossholtz raised the question -- what commitment we will make to build a community rather than to divide it? I think that what you see today that comes into your living rooms on television doesn't suggest builders in Washington, it suggest people who are divisive. And so, I am saying to you as you go from these hallowed halls, and enter into positions of leadership in public service, I think that what Mary Lyon conceived at Mount Holyoke was to prepare you for leadership that unites not that wrests apart. I think that the education that you have received here has focused you to understand that there are those out there who have not had the privilege of being in these hallowed halls -- and who desperately need you to help them. Particularly children and particularly the elderly. Don't get caught up in the political rhetoric, live with the reality of service. Please understand that when you hear rhetorical reference today, to those who are on welfare with the suggestion that they not deserve it -- what they are really talking about are your fathers and mothers and mine, who are going to be turned away from healthcare, not welfare.

And so, my friends, it is not matriarchy we are after. It is something far more important. And when the struggle seems long and difficult, it might be useful to remember what Justice Thurgood Marshall told us: that it is not only how far we have come, but how close we are. Your role in shaping public policy is vital to our future. Now as you set off on that drive, I thought the least I could do is to offer a little personal advice to you. Now that the preaching is over, I thought I should give you five rules for living life that have worked for me.

The first rule in life is: cherish your friends and your family as if your life depended on it...because it does. Isn't that right, Jane?

Number two: Love people more than things. You know those T-shirts that say, "He who has the most toys when he dies wins." I'm going to promise you that over the years I've spent my life collecting a great number of things I thought I was going to die if I didn't have. And I wouldn't give you a nickel for most of it today.

Number three: Indulge the fool in you. Encourage the clown and the laughter that is inside of you. You know? Go ahead and do it. Make time now for play, for the impractical, for the absurd, and make it a rule to do it. Not just every now and then. Let your heart overrule your head once in a while. Never turn down a new experience unless it's law or it's going to get you in real serious trouble.

Number four: Don't spend a lot of time worrying about your failures. I've learned a whole lot more from my mistakes from all of my successes.

And number five: Have some sense about work. No one ever died muttering, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

There is a wonderful world out there. It's just waiting for your energy and your ideas. We need you. I hope that when you return after 25 years, you'll bring a former president --or two -- with you. I am sure that the Queen would join me in wishing you the very best.

God bless you...and God speed.

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