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A tale of two speeches

When a black woman with empathy and a single mother who writes about magic speak about empathy, service and compassion on graduation day at Stanford and Harvard, does it finally signify that values once rejected as ‘feminine’ and invalid are finding a voice and a space, asks Manjima Bhattacharjya as she flags off a new column on feminism’s Third Wave

This summer was special. Two of the premier educational institutions in the world, Stanford and Harvard, invited two unusual candidates to make the commencement speech at their graduation ceremonies. A black woman with empathy, who took a long time to put in her last credit and actually graduate, and a single mother who writes about magic. Before you think this was just any other black woman or single woman, let me quickly clarify: I speak of Oprah Winfrey who spoke at the Stanford Commencement, while JK Rowling spoke at the Harvard ceremony, although not without controversy.

Oprah Winfrey

Unlike graduation in India which is most unceremonious (even a compulsive degree-hunter like me has never been to one) American graduation ceremonies are a big deal, with much made of the ‘commencement speaker’ for the year – usually a symbol of success, wisdom and inspiration, who can give direction to the coming years of the graduating class. As I sat amongst the crowd at Stanford’s stadium listening to what Oprah had to say to the 4,000-strong graduating class, I wondered what this could mean. A few weeks later as I read the text of the JK Rowling speech doing the rounds on the Internet, I was struck by the coincidence of another woman candidate for the honour. Did it indicate that women have entered a certain mainstream when they are invited to address such gatherings? What did they say, and what could it symbolise?

Given that they are both wealthier than one can imagine (Oprah tops the Forbes list with an estimated $1.5 billion while JK Rowling comes second with $1 billion), it is perhaps not such a surprise that they be singled out for having something to say. But for a university like Harvard renowned for being the pinnacle of snobbery (where a previous commencement speech is rumoured to have been entirely in Latin), this was a truly radical departure. Rowling was the fifth woman since 1950 ever invited to speak at Harvard, others having been accorded the honour including Madeline Albright and Mary Robinson. Even though Harvard got its historic first woman president, Drew Gilpin Faust, in 2007, the university has often courted controversy with its position on women and gender. The previous dean Lawrence Summers, for instance, caused an international embarrassment with his suggestion that boys are bound to be better at math and science than girls because of biological differences.

J k Rowling

The announcement of Rowling’s selection was not received particularly well at Harvard. Giving the rationale for her selection, the Dean emphasised while introducing the author, “No one in our time has done more to inspire young people to… read”. Some wondered if she wasn’t too lightweight, given the stature of previous speakers (Nobel Prize winners, former presidents, Bill Gates, Kofi Annan), a student ranted in the university newspaper that she was just a “petty pop culture personality”, another complained that “they should have picked a leader… Not a children’s writer” asking “Are we the joke class?” A graduating senior reportedly said, “You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … we should be able to get anyone. And in my opinion, we're settling here.”(1) But there were others too, especially alumni (who selected her), who noted that perhaps Harvard graduates still had more to learn about the meaning of success and the many different ways of contributing to the world.

On the other hand, the selection of Oprah was without event, barring a few odd voices. Oprah is in fact one of the most demanded commencement speakers on the university circuit (along with Jimmy Carter and Bill Cosby). Commencement speakers in the USA have traditionally come from the world of politics, academics (especially scholars from the sciences) or business, but today increasingly people from fields of ‘mass culture’ and ‘celebrities’ are being included. Other than who the speaker is, what speakers say is also keenly observed. In the past, speakers have “made history” with momentous statements about global issues at that time, like John F Kennedy, who called for an end to the arms race and the Cold War in a famous 1963 commencement speech at the American University.

Universities in the USA have been discussing for a while the pressures of finding the ‘right’ speaker, hinting at the politics of such selections. Colleges try to balance high expectations of students of someone famous who can inspire and entertain them (actor/comedian Bill Cosby apparently had Rice University students rolling in the aisles one year), a game of one-upmanship between universities, and a given budget. Most commencement speakers charge hefty fees (typically estimated to be between $25-35,000) unless they are in-office politicians who cannot accept a fee or they are famous alumni of the university themselves, in which case they may consider waiving or reducing the fee.

Other than the internal considerations, selection is framed in an external politics as well. A study of ‘the selection of commencement speakers of 32 elite colleges and universities’ (2) revealed that there was a heavy bias towards liberals and Democrat speakers in elite colleges, whereas Republicans or conservatives were poorly represented. Moreover, conservative speakers (including George W Bush) often faced protest rallies at these colleges as a result of which administration avoided such potential conflicts. Some commencement speakers have also been the cause of tension between Catholic colleges and the church, leading to a cardinal-led task force urging colleges not to have abortion rights-supporting politicians as commencement speakers or honorary degree recipients.(3) Recent years have seen Catholic colleges making “concerted efforts” to choose speakers who promote the Catholic identity and mission, and avoid those who publicly challenge the church. (They definitely won’t be asking JK Rowling to speak in a hurry, given her divorced status and promotion of gay wizards.) These anxieties reveal that the selection of the speaker is a political statement, but also – the speech itself is expected to have considerable influence on young minds.

Given their ‘celebrity’ then, the selection of Oprah or Rowling has no great significance for women’s inclusion in the elite lists of commencement speakers. What is radically significant though is what they said.

In her speech, Oprah shared three of the greatest lessons she had learnt in life. Her first lesson: go by your feelings and ask yourself whenever in doubt: “Does it feel right?” She cites the example of her early years in a television station as a news anchor (when she was asked to change her name to Suzie and perm her hair to ‘fit in’) where she knew something was amiss, until she began her talk show. “And how do you know when you're doing something right? How do you know that? It feels so. What I know now is that feelings are really your GPS system for life. When you're supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know,” she said.

Her second lesson: find meaning in your failures by asking “what is this here to teach me?” She cites the example of a school she set up for girls in South Africa, in which she scrutinised every detail of its setting up, yet incidences of sexual abuse by one of the matrons came out in the coming months showing her how she had perhaps been focusing on the wrong things. Her third lesson: find happiness by operating through the paradigm of service and being part of some change, whichever occupation you are in. She says, “I was always happy doing my talk show, but that happiness reached a depth of fulfillment, of joy, that I really can't describe to you or measure when I stopped just being on TV and looking at TV as a job and decided to use television, to use it and not have it use me, to use it as a platform to serve my viewers.”

JK Rowling’s speech on ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failures and the Importance of Imagination’ relived her own days as a failure – jobless, divorced, lone parent and poor, and reflected on what it had taught her: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” Rowling spoke of the power of imagination as a transformative and revelatory tool. She recalled working as an intern in Amnesty International and seeing how “the power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet”. Her message to the graduates was to reach out and touch other people’s lives: “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better.”

Look at the themes they picked: feelings, failure, happiness, finding yourself, empathy, service, compassion, what is meaningful in life, what money means (this might sound trite coming from the richest women in entertainment – but both placed great emphasis on their belief that money is still only a means to other ends) and imagining and actively contributing to a better world. Themes like these or a question like “Does it feel right?” would conventionally have been against all norms of objectivity and dismissed as too emotional, illogical, and just too ‘feminine’.

Intuition/ emotion/ feelings versus science/ reason/ rationality. Since the time of Comte’s positivism, these have been cast as binary opposites, as female versus male, heart versus head, fact versus feeling, subjective versus objective. Supported by ‘scientific evidence’ like theories of the right brain (supposedly more active in women) linked to premonitions and left brain (supposedly more active in men) linked to logic, these have sometimes been used to explain why men are better at math and women are good with words. More critically, feminism has pointed out that these binaries have been routinely used through history to perpetuate myths about the legitimacy of gender inequality (and therefore justify gender-based discrimination) and dismiss women’s voices as ‘emotional’, ‘hysterical’ or ‘irrational’, rendering their knowledge and experiences invalid. Valid ‘authentic’ knowledge has always been male, logical, that which can be seen and measured in line with the fundamental tenets of scientific rationality. Are the lines between these binaries finally blurring? Are values/ideas once rejected as ‘feminine’ and invalid finding voice and a space in the times to come? Yes, if the pin-drop silence that both speakers got through their speeches and the two-minute standing ovations are anything to go by.

Oprah and Rowling’s sparkling addresses in the backdrop of institutions built on scientific hegemony brought into the mainstream all that has so far been considered ‘feminine’, unscientific and most undeserving of any import. As I sit writing this, world financial markets are crashing like cards. The instrumental rationality (4) of capital has been unquestionably challenged. Placed in the timeline of events that have been occurring over the last few months, their words seem bathed in a new light. Questions like “What is this here to teach us?”, “What could be the fringe benefits of the failure (of capitalism)?” and “How can we imagine the future?” couldn’t have been more timely. I can’t help but wonder if a new -ism is in the reckoning, something that is being born out of the churning of capitalism, socialism, communism, feminism. A paradigm shift is imminent, where money/knowledge/ profits/values/people will all be considered anew.

This summer was special, but this winter might be even more so.


  4. A specific form of rationality focusing on the most efficient or cost-effective means to achieve a specific end, but not in itself reflecting on the value of that end. Instrumental rationality tends to focus on the 'hows' of an action, rather than its 'whys'. (Wikipaedia definition)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008