Cecile Richards

Barnard College Commencement Address - May 18, 2014

Cecile Richards
May 18, 2014— New York City, New York
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Thank you. Thank you, President Spar, Board of Trustees.

Patti Smith – wow - Ursula Burns, Mahzarin R. Banaji. It's a tremendous honor to be mentioned alongside all of you.

To beaming relatives and friends, proud and adoring parents, and the ecstatic graduates class of 2014. It's been tremendous to see many of you speak today, just to see the support and love that you have for each other. Congratulations on a job well done. [applause] Yeah, give it up for yourselves

I'm incredibly honored to be here and a bit awestruck, so a couple of disclaimers before we get started. First, I actually didn't even walk in my own graduation ceremony because I was otherwise occupied. At the time, students at Brown were protesting investment in South Africa by the university, and well, somebody had to unfurl the banner from the second floor window, so why not me? But it even actually partially paid off. Brown was one of the first schools to divest from South Africa and it was an incredible honor to be just a few years ago back on campus when Dr. Ruth Simmons presented Nelson Mandela with an honorary degree. That's progress in America. [applause]

Second, as I guess is obvious, I'm not a Barnard alum although it seems like 90 percent of the folks I work with at Planned Parenthood are. [cheers] Really, it's incredible – from our chief operating officer to our Board of Trustees, Barnard alumni are pretty much running the place. So thank you for that to Barnard.

And it is a privilege, of course, to be here with all of you strong, beautiful Barnard women today. [cheers]

Now I sort of think you all are in a pretty sweet position because everyone from Tom Brokaw to Hillary Clinton is saying that this is the Century of the Woman and wow, we've only had to wait 200,000 years for that so we better get busy, right?

Many of you I know because I've already read about you. You've already carefully plotted out your future. Some of you have already written books probably and invented new apps and learned five languages. It's a little overwhelming for the rest of us.

But if I could just speak for a moment to the other half of the class [laughter] who maybe aren't totally certain what's next. Let me just say, most of us never are. And as you begin this exciting lifelong pursuit of figuring out what it's all about, I'd like to put in a plug for one option that your career counselor may not have suggested.

Commencement speeches have to have a message, so this is it. Life as an activist and a troublemaker and an agitator is a tremendous option and one that I highly recommend to all of you. [cheers and applause] Yeah. Sorry parents.

So in your four years – and some of this is already been mentioned – at Barnard you've produced "The Vagina Monologues," you've worked on mayoral and presidential campaigns, you've tutored kids in the neighborhood, you've taken back the night, and today you're getting ready to leave all of that behind you and become a fully functioning adult with a career.

But all those amazing things that you've done over the last four years on campus could actually be your career – think about it – and lead to the most incredible life you could have.

We all do have to acknowledge, though, the privilege to which we're born and you've already heard a little bit about mine. My parents were activists. Our dining room table was never where we ate dinner – it was where we sorted precinct lists or stuffed envelopes for whatever campaign my folks were working on. Growing up in Dallas in the 60s, my parents were hooked on to any movement that came through town. My dad was defending conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. My mother was dragging us as kids to the grocery store to see if there was a union label on the lettuce and the grapes. And then, of course, there was a day when she heard an activist named Gloria Steinem and she came home a new convert to this crazy thing called women's liberation.

My first brush with the authorities was in seventh grade. That was a day I wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War, which was a heinous offense back in Texas. Being called to the principal's office at the tender age of 13 – it was a revelation – but after surviving that standoff with Principal Tom Heston I refused to take off my arm band. [cheers] It was great. I began a life of questioning authority, which isn't often popular and can be downright controversial.

I want to say I know there's been some controversy about my appearance here today. So can I just say I really appreciate the fact that Barnard students are the kind of people who don't have to agree with someone to listen to their thoughts. [applause] So thank you.

As you may know, Planned Parenthood was actually born in controversy, a tradition that we've done our best to uphold for 98 years. In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first illegal birth control clinic over across the bridge to a place called Brooklyn – you probably haven't been there – but 10 days later an undercover cop posing as a mother arrested her, threw her in jail where she taught her fellow inmates about birth control and a movement was born. Ever since then I guess we've had sort of an affinity for challenging the status quo, something we share proudly with Barnard.

As you know Barnard, was founded nearly 125 years ago, one of the first colleges to embrace this radical notion that women actually deserved access to higher education. By the time the 70s and the 80s rolled around, women had infiltrated just about every college campus in the country and we were no longer an exception. Actually we were a pretty hot commodity and everybody wanted women, and one by one the Seven Sisters started coupling up with their coed counterparts and all eyes turned to Barnard.

As Barnard alone, Anna Quindlen tells it, the conventional wisdom was at the time that Barnard should marry Columbia and take its name but you know what? Barnard refused to fold. [cheers and applause]

I love…I was reading back that 50 years ago the New York Times was reporting on Barnard's commencement, noting with pride how many of the graduates of the class of 1964 were already married. They'd made it! Thankfully, the class of 2014 that's graduating today is redefining success in all new kinds of ways, like the teacher who developed a history curriculum for high school students in Cape Town and the entrepreneur who is raising money and awareness around gun violence.

Educating and empowering women has turned out to be a growth industry and Barnard was an early investor. But you know women have only ever gotten what we fight for – nothing more and I hope nothing less – and we've been painfully reminded in the last few weeks that in too many parts of the world women's education is still considered a radical idea and girls can be shot, they can be kidnapped, they can be even enslaved for having the audacity to go to school. So our fight is far from over, and thank you, Barnard, for leading for more than a century this charge for women's education.

Working for social change, it's hard to ever know if you're really making a difference. It's really hard to measure. When my great-grandmother was a girl in Texas, the only folks who couldn't vote under Texas law were quote "idiots, imbeciles, the insane and women." But wouldn't you know it, just two generations later my mother, Ann Richards, was elected governor of the state.

That's the thing about women – give us an inch and we just won't quit. In the words of the legendary Congresswoman Bella Abzug, "Maybe we weren't at the Last Supper but we're certainly going to be at the next one."[laughter]

One of my favorite recent examples is passing the Affordable Care Act. There was an argument, actually, in the Senate committee about women's health – one of many – where a male senator objected to insurance coverage for maternity benefits, saying that he would never need them. Senator Debbie Stabenow came right back without missing a beat and said, "I bet your mother did." But it's just more evidence that for women, if we're not at the table we're on the menu.

Having 20 women in the U.S. Senate has made a huge difference. It has changed the conversation, though as Senator Claire McCaskill says, "You know what would be better than 20 – 50." So think about it. [applause]

But it's not just politics. All over the world, fearless women are turning life as we know it upside down.

Take Ory Okolloh, who grew up in Nairobi. She went to college and law school in the States, turned down a big job at a firm in Washington to come home after graduation for Kenya's 2007 election. When the riots broke out in the polls, Ory teamed up with a few of her friends to create a crowdsourcing map that tracked incidences of violence in real time. They call it Ushahidi, the Swahili word for testimony. Their platform is now being used around the world, tracking everything from corruption by members of parliament to survivors of the hurricane in Haiti. As for Ory, if you want to know more about her you can read all about her life on the Times' list of 100 Most Influential People in the world.

Right here in New York, Reshma Saujani decided that high school girls who were encouraged could be superstars in the tech industry, so she started Girls Who Code and chapters are now popping up all over the country, with young women learning the skills they need to take on careers in computer science. [cheers]

Then there's Annie Clark and Andrea Pino. who met after they'd each been sexually assaulted as students at UNC and realized that what happened to them was happening everywhere and no one was talking about it. For the first time, they pitched their story to a reporter, the national reporter laughed. Two months later, they were on the front page of the New York Times. That's when the floodgates opened. They heard from hundreds of survivors all over the country. Then this March, Annie and Andrea showed up at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's office without an appointment and said we want to talk about ending sexual assault on campus. [applause] That's right. As Annie tells it, "We started talking and she listened," and today they have formed a national network of survivors working with Congress and the White House to end campus sexual assault and demand justice, and it's about time. [applause]

The common theme in all this – these women didn't wait to be asked. They just jumped headfirst. To borrow some wisdom from one of your previous award winners, Lena Dunham, "Don't wait around for someone else to tell your story – do it yourself by whatever means necessary." If you hold out for an invitation, chances are good you're going to miss the party. And by the party, I mean life.

Growing up, Mom always told me the answer to life is yes. This is the only life you get, so you got to make the most of it. Take absolutely every opportunity and risk that you can. You're only going to regret the things that you didn't try because you were afraid.

Women often come to me and they're thinking about applying for a job and they're worried they don't have the right degree or that they don't have all the right experiences – can I tell you, I have never had a man say that to me about any of that – or that they want to have kids and how was that going to work out?

On that front, I was eight months pregnant with twins campaigning for my mother, and you haven't lived until you've been on a parade float in the Yamboree parade in East Texas in a giant maternity dress, okay. You can imagine.

But my true confession to you is every single job I've interviewed for, from deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi to running Planned Parenthood, I knew there was no way I was going to get it, but frankly I knew my mother was going to kill me if I didn't try.

So I'm just here to tell you – just do it, whatever it is. Say yes. You're Barnard graduates – you can do anything in the world.

And as the late great Nora Ephron said, "Be the heroine of your life – never the victim."

To all you parents out there – I know you're so proud of your daughters today, as am I, and trust me – if you think they're great as students, they're fantastic when they become fiercely independent adults. I've never cheered so loud as when my son, Daniel, became the vice president of the reproductive rights group on campus and they got birth control finally at Allegheny. Or my daughter, Hannah, who when Planned Parenthood was under attack, organized a rally in support of us, complete with flash mob at Wesleyan. And of course there was a proud day this spring when Rush Limbaugh came after my daughter, Lily, right on the radio for being a feminist. Now that's bragging rights as a parent! [applause]

I'd like to think it's the Richards tradition passed down through the generations. And my mom – she did teach me so much – the basics: never wear patterns on TV, if you're going to be in the public eye try to pick a hairstyle and stick with it, and before naming your child please think about how it's going to look on a bumper sticker. It's good advice. [laughter]

But the most important thing she taught me is that being an activist offers something that you can't get anywhere else, and that's getting to do work that makes a difference. Mom said, you know you may go somewhere and make a lot of money but you'll never receive the kind of gratification that you get when someone looks you in the eye and says thank you for helping make my life better.

The world can be tough, it can be unjust, but here's the great news – every one of you has the power to do something about it. You get to build the world you want to live in. It's not about being perfect, about having it all, about doing it all. It's just about getting started.

You've got work to do, so congratulations. Let's get to it.

Thank you.