Ella T. Grasso

Commencement Address at Mount Holyoke College – June 1, 1975

Ella T. Grasso
June 01, 1975— Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts
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My dear friends,

This is a proud day – a day which to honor achievement and look ahead to new adventure.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes was pondering what to say at his fiftieth reunion, he remarked to his wife: "Life is not adding up a sum, it is painting a picture, believing that the canvas will fill out."

I am honored that you – the Class of '75 – are letting me share in your commencement exercises today. As you add more color to the first wash of your personal canvas, I urge you to paint a picture that will be ample, exciting and humane.

I urge you to seek roles that are meaningful – that will make you active participants in the important events of the day.

People often ask me how it has been possible to be a woman and a political leader. They ask whether I have ever found my femaleness to be a liability, how it was possible to conquer, and demolish, so many stereotypes – and to combine the roles of political person, mother and wife, daughter, neighbor and citizen.

This line of questioning always surprises me, because the fact of my gender has not been a pressing issue in my life.

Perhaps those six years spent in South Hadley – ever so long ago – made this so.

Here I was always taken seriously, first as a student and then as a teaching assistant and graduate student. There were many models to emulate – on the faculty, in the administration and among the speakers invited to our campus.

Here I was encouraged to think of my life not as something that would happen to me, but as something I would shape for myself. We were encouraged in the view that to share a passion for helping others was a joy and not a drudgery.

The gifts of Holyoke to its graduates then and now are a taste for autonomy, a capacity for commitment and the self-confidence that keeps us moving from one task to the next.

Like yours, my college years were years of great uncertainty.

In the 1930's a social critic said our nation was teetering on "destruction's brink" – and nobody argued the point. Events In Europe and economic and social problems brought on by the depression were always with us. So was domestic politics.

Campus women organized for and against Roosevelt in both 1936 and 1940. There were benefits for the streams of refugees leaving Europe. And leading artists and thinkers of the period come to the College.

Jascha Helfetz played; Anna Rosenberg spoke and Carl Sandburg read from his works.

Governor Saltonstall came to Founders' Day and Granville Hicks told us that he left the Communist Party because of the Busso-German pact.

Linus Pauling explained some Implications of the staggering new developments In chemistry and physics and would shape the era to come.

Skimming through old campus newspapers, one Is struck with the visibility of women – on the faculty, on campus as guests of the College, functioning as what we know to be role models today. Sure, there was controversy and comment when a man – the first male President of the College – replaced Mary Woolley, who by her life and her example was the symbol and substance of the activist woman. Otherwise we did not question – indeed we were not concerned about – whether females were capable and equal to males. Our potential was so much taken for granted that it did not have to be discussed or defended.

We dated on weekends. We had our own affirmative action program: to get a favorite man to the Collegge for a coke at Glessey's and perhaps an afternoon of canoeing on the lake. Sometimes we donned slacks and sweatehlrts for a hike up Mt. Tom even if it wasn't Mountain Day.

There were many light moments. But In those years, Holyoke never seemed Isolated from the serious events that were taking place at home and abroad.

Our fears and expectations were summarized well in a letter of farewell to the Class of 1940 on the very eve of World War II. Jeannette Marks, the author and well-known feminist, wrote of the "dislocation of civilization" that awaited us. She spoke of the "economic injustices and the disease of leadership" – meaning Hitler, of course – "that these injustices had made possible." She concluded, however, that there was a role for women, a "greater opportunity to serve than women have ever known."

If a woman's love for the human race is deep enough and strong enough, she can with planning, bring to an end both the brutality and corruption which have made a mock of all human values.

And then she listed what women can do:

We can stand against corruption
We can stand against cruelty
We can stand against injustice
We can stand against race hatred in any form.

These were stirring workds for future leaders to hear.

Yet, there is no question that in the years since 1940, something happened to many American women whose older sisters had become more active. They were persuaded that service could best – and sometimes only – be performed as an extension of the wife and mother role. In 1940, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates were women. Regretably, it was not until 1969 that the national proportion was that high again.

We will never know why some women abdicated leadership and were frightened away from politics in the 1950's and 60's. It may have been the war and brutality of the 40's, post-war consumerism, or the rise in importance of science and technology that Holyoke specialized in, but few other colleges encouraged women to pursue.

But if – as it appears – the Holyoke of the 70's is trying to connect again with the Holyoke I knew, then we must all be grateful that the nation will make use of the talents represented in this audience today.

In 1940, when I graduated, the country needed technicians, soldiers and innovators who could galvanize the nation's industrial potential and human resources into a victory machine.

To that end, the country embarked on an explosive rate of growth. The process continued into the post-war years, fostered by government policy and by the needs of Western Europe for American products and technology. An almost unrestricted wish for and capacity for growth enabled us to solve yet unsolved problems in business and government.

Now, however, we have learned there are limits to growth. The limits come not only from the constraints of our resources and the growing ambitions of our poorer neighbors, but also because our most treasured institutions are not capable of growing at a rapid rate without changing fundamentally.

We know that we cannot solve our problems as we have for decades – simply by adding on. Budgets cannot go up each year. Social services, however necessary, cannot be expanded without making painful trade-offs and adjustments.

As a result, administrators in every sector have to take a long, critical look at everything we are doing and wy.

Management science has given us tools to help, and we must use them.

For the challenges of governing in these times are immense.

Toward that end, the College's newly established program in the Administration of Complex Organizations is timely and imaginative. For it is in the understanding and management of complex organizations, whether in the corporate world, in local, state or national government, that ideas become issues – that policy is shaped and carried out.

After all, an idea without a strategy for its realization is but a mental exercise, which is not useful in a world that is in desperate need of workable solutions in pressing problems.

Politics, being the art of the possible, has to address itself more and more to maneuvering within large bureaucracies. Clearly the study and analysis of complex organizations ought to be a significant part of any college curriculum that is to prepare young people for service in the real world.

What I worry about is whether you who have the range of skills needed for this important and challenging phase of our nation's history will continue to be attracted to government and social service occupations – whether you will be willing to put up with the frustrations and disappointments that are often more numerous than the tangible marks of success.

Today's leader has to deal with uncertainties. We never have all the information we need to make a decision.

Today's leader has to be persuasive and above all patient – willing to explain again and again why a certain policy is needed, but flexible enough to shift that policy when its time has lapsed.

And today's leader, above all, must be a humanist. This, after all, is the point of your education – to place human interests and ideals at the heart of your existence.

You are doing this if you are able to see life in all its folly with a Don Quixote, and its whimsy with an Ogden Nash; to appreciate the ordered world of an Arnold Toynbee, the perspective of a Barbara Tuchman, and the beauty of a Shelley and a Keats; to understand the torment of a Sylvia Plath, the poignant imagery of a Vonnegut, and the inhuman cruelty in the personal relationships of an Edward Albee; to admit that unmusical music hurts your ears and that the falseness of some contemporary art blinds your eyes; and, yes, to know the fantastic "little people" of a Tolkien.

To see, to recognize, to understand – that is the spirit of humanism. It will inspire your lives. It will teach you how to live and how to bring life to the world about you.

I am sure that each of you throughout your lives will assert the dignity and worth of every individual.

By doing this you will assure that the issue of equality is an enduring cornerstone of our nation's commitment to itself.

Speech from https://compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/mtholyoke:20693. Audio of portions of the address at http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums741-b274-i016.