Address to the Graduating Class
Lynn Sherr '63
President Walsh, fellow Trustees, amazing faculty and
staff, beaming parents and stepparents (or any relative
generous enough to pay for all this) ... and wonderful Class
Good morning. Good graduation. Good heavens -- what have
you done to our Tower?
I celebrate your accomplishments and I thank you for
inviting me to share this magical day. And I stand here
fully aware that -- except for that pile of degrees -- I am
the only thing standing between you and lunch. Trust me, I
Not that there's anything wrong with degrees. Especially
when you've worked as hard as I know you have. You are
living proof of the story I like to tell about the man in
the hospital. The doctor told him, "Sir, I have bad news and
good news. The bad news is, you need a new brain. The good
news is, I've got two available." The man was devastated --
a new brain? "Tell me," he finally said, "what are the two?"
"Well," said the doctor, "I've got a male brain, which will
cost you $20,000, and a female brain, which will cost
$10,000. You choose." The man was baffled. "Why is the
female brain so much cheaper?" he asked. "Easy," answered
the doctor. "It's been used."
I know exactly how much all of you use your brains
because in fact, this is my third Wellesley commencement.
My first was in 1963, when I sat out there where you are
... excited, scared, chomping at the bit (and wearing
something yellow under my gown). My job that day was to
listen, and our speaker was the editor of a major newspaper
and thus a potential employer. But I am sorry to report that
I have absolutely no recollection of what if anything he
told us. Zero. Either I wasn't listening, or he wasn't
telling, both of which reflect the rather dreary set of
expectations for women at the time.
My second Wellesley commencement was in 1990. Then, in my
role as a television reporter, I stood over there --
broadcasting live the graduation speech of First Lady
Barbara Bush. I had Peter Jennings in one ear, Barbara Bush
(and Raisa Gorbachev) in the other, and some millions of TV
viewers watching Wellesley instead of a soap opera. On the
one hand, I fully appreciated the moment, and felt immensely
proud to be reporting on and representing my school. On the
other, I couldn't help thinking, "Wait -- I have something
to tell the students!"
So now I take my place up here -- Eager to welcome you
into the wide, wide world ... but even more determined to
remind you that taking your place there is not only a right,
it is a privilege, a precious gift with a long and heroic
Woman's place -- it's a quaint notion with no equivalent
in the male world -- and it used to be part of a sentence
that ended "... is in the kitchen," or sometimes "... in the
bedroom." The late Bella Abzug, bless her, turned the notion
on its head when she first ran for Congress in 1970. "This
woman's place is in the House," read her slightly seditious
posters, "the House of Representatives."
When I graduated in 1963 -- a date I repeat to remind you
that there have been other Wellesley classes besides yours
and Hillary's -- "woman's place" was severely limited and
the roadmaps to get there were unimaginably confusing.
Wellesley wanted to sharpen our minds and develop our
intellects, but we were led to believe that would happen
only if we wore a skirt to dinner, balanced a demi-tasse cup
in the living room and took a course that taught how to get
out of the back seat of a car in high heels. (I never
Society wanted us to find a husband, but you could only
do that until curfew rang, which always seemed far too soon.
And if you entertained a gentleman in your room the door had
to be cracked open, with one foot on the floor at all times.
I am not making any of this up.
In some ways, it was a deliciously uncomplicated era -- a
time when we referred to certain buildings as the "new
dorms" because they actually were new; when there still were
7 Seven Sister Schools; when a postage stamp cost 4 cents.
Incidentally, a postage stamp was a little colorful square
of paper that you stuck onto an envelope which contained a
letter that was actually written by hand. It took 3-5 days
to reach your parents. Talk about quaint.
But there was a dismal side. In those days, getting help
for emotional problems -- finding a psychiatrist on campus
-- was something like getting an abortion: you said it was
for a friend.
We even spoke a different language: feminists were
nonexistent, "coming out" was done by debutantes and
"working out" was something you did to a problem. At the
bell desk in my dorm, a male guest was a "caller," a female
a "visitor," and there was no question which was more
Perhaps you think of this as ancient history. I don't,
because I majored in Greek which was ancient history -- and
actually made more sense. It was merely 1963, when we
weren't supposed to have careers, we were supposed to marry
them. I don't know who first retranslated the Wellesley
motto as "not to be ministers but ministers' wives." I do
know that my class twisted it even further in Junior show.
We posed the earth-shattering question, Is there life after
college? And we answered it by creating a fictional
finishing school in Washington, DC that trained graduates
"not to be diplomats, but diplomats' wives." You will no
doubt sleep more soundly tonight knowing that Madeleine
Albright was not in my class.
The real world only reinforced that attitude. When I got
to New York and started job-hunting in journalism, the doors
were slammed shut against female applicants. Like all of my
pals, I was told point blank by most news organizations that
they "just weren't interested in girls." As for television
news, forget it. That was another exclusive men's club --
invented by men, run by men, aimed at men. Extraordinary as
it may seem, it never occurred to any of us to question that
attitude. It's just the way things were.
The breakthrough, I should point out, was not
magnanimity, but a series of lawsuits and threats of same
that emerged from the women's movement. I got into
television in 1972 (after six years at the Associated Press)
because another woman -- another blonde -- was leaving. The
only people being auditioned had hair the color of hers --
and mine. So I refer to it as the blonde seat at Channel 2
news. If you have to be female, they were saying, you better
And thick-skinned. Television, I warn those of you who
are interested, is very humbling.
There was the time I was a local TV reporter in New York,
and I got a call very early one morning to cover a story at
a hospital out in Brooklyn. As I was walking through the
lobby -- clearly a TV reporter, with my I had a cameraman
and sound man in tow -- an elderly gentleman came right up
to me, stopped, stared and said, "Say, you're on Channel 2,
you're Lynn Sherr, right?" I smiled proudly and said,
"Right." "Well," he said, squinting up at me, "you look
better on television."
When I left that job and had been off the air for a few
weeks, someone else actually stopped me on the street and
said, "Didn't you used to be Lynn Sherr?" How does one
It's like all those folks who always asked, "What's it
like to be a woman in TV News?" I could never answer that
one because I had no basis for comparison.
I tell you how it used to be because I want all of you to
understand that the privileges we now enjoy were not always
there. And that even our problems seem benign compared to
those the women before us endured.
Think of this: When my mother was born, she did not have
the right to vote.
It is almost impossible to believe that we have had woman
suffrage in this country for only 79 years. And other rights
just barely longer.
As we approach the next century, it is useful to remember
the gloomy status of women early in the last one. It was a
time when the 23 United States of America were ruled by
Blackstone's English common law, that bluntly stated, "The
husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband." It
meant that a married woman in America had no legal right to
any aspect of her relationship with her husband: she could
not own property, earn money, make contracts, sue or be
sued, or be guardian of her own children. When the law was
enforced -- which was often -- it meant that wives could be
seized if they ran away, and beaten; that they had to beg
their husbands for spending money; it meant that they lost
custody of their children if the father chose to spirit them
All women -- married or not -- were bound by a number of
additional restrictions: they could not go to college in the
early 1800's (there were none for women); they could work
comfortably in only a handful of professions (housework,
sewing, teaching and factories), and when they did,
generally took home a mere fraction of the pay of their male
At the time, there were no licensed women doctors, no
ordained women ministers, or rabbis, no women lawyers or
elected Senators. And of course, no woman could vote. Not
for school board, not for mayor and certainly not for
President of the United States. But there was no bias in
taxation. Single or widowed women who did own property had
to pay their dues to a government that would not let them
participate in running it.
Thanks to the efforts of the bold, unrelenting women and
men of the 19th century -- led by my personal hero, Susan B.
Anthony -- all of that changed. In Anthony's case, it was
done with wit, style and a prescience that still speaks to
Single all her life, she urged married women to keep
their own names, telling an interviewer in 1871: "Woman has
an individuality as well as man, and she should preserve it
... Do you suppose that a woman who makes a reputation under
her maiden name is going to lose that name by marriage, and
adopt that of an unknown creature of a husband?"
A devoted Quaker, whose close friends included Jews,
Catholics, protestants and Mormons, she dismissed those who
quoted The Bible to oppose woman suffrage, by saying, "I
distrust those people who know so well what God wants them
to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own
She was also one of those who fought the losing battle
against the very controversial new dress reform known as the
bloomer costume. Anthony abandoned her bloomers after just
two years, because the public humiliation was so
devastating. Why, you may ask, did anyone make such a fuss
about substituting long, voluminous pantaloons for the
body-constricting corsets and crinolines of 19th-century
dresses? Why the controversy when not even an inch of ankle
showed? You might as soon ask why, more than a century
later, so many of us were at first forbidden to wear
trousers to work during the mid-1970s. I think it has
something to do with legs. Or, perhaps, wearing the pants.
Today, we wear what we want, and we vote as we please,
and we simply assume that gender -- for the most part -- has
nothing to do with jobs.
The rules have changed.
But as we rejoice in this new order, I urge you to
remember that the rights that led to this social revolution
are precious rights, hard won. They didn't appear by magic.
As Susan B. Anthony put it, "so many of these young
people know nothing of the past; they are apt to think they
have sprung up like somebody's gourd, and that nothing ever
was done until they came."
I beg you to remember the history, to appreciate what it
took to get the right to vote, to get colleges of our own,
to sit at the table.
Because too many of us are still stuck in the wrong
Every 12 seconds in this country, a woman is battered, by
a husband or a lover or an acquaintance; every day 2,160
children are born into poverty, and another 13 are killed by
guns; every evening an elderly woman cannot afford to eat
dinner; every payday, a woman takes home only 79 cents on
the dollar earned by a man. Every time there is a war, a
woman is raped ... over and over and over. And far more
often than we want to acknowledge, someone we know is
dangerously skipping meals because she doesn't think she's
worthy of being fed.
This, too, is our history; the challenge is to keep it
from becoming our future.
I know you understand because you have ventured so much
further beyond the gates of this glorious campus than any of
us ever did. And because you as a group had the good sense
to come here in the first place. I am so proud of Wellesley
today - still a giant in academic excellence; once again a
gutsy pioneer, with a powerful renewed commitment to turn
high school girls into the bold women who will lead our
world. That's you.
But as you leave here to take your place in that world,
please remember this: Men are not the enemy. Women are not
always the solution. We're flying on this planet together.
We need each other, because whatever you think will
happen to you in the next five or even fifty years -- won't.
Life, famously unfair, has a maddening way of disrupting
There's a cartoon on my wall from an old New Yorker
magazine: it shows a chicken tossing a few eggs up in the
air, and another hen watching nearby saying, "How she's able
to manage a career and still juggle her family, I'll never
know." The answer is simple: the eggs could get scrambled.
Get used to it.
Today I work at a job that didn't exist 36 years ago, and
I get most of my information -- not to mention books and
auction items I don't need -- from internet cyberspots run
by people half my age. Okay, one-third my age.
I've had cancer and chemotherapy and am doing fine right
now, thanks -- a survivor, I like to think, not a victim.
I've been married and widowed and I have already bought
my new step-granddaughter a Wellesley tee shirt. I've met
extraordinary individuals, including a number of giraffes
and gorillas -- and while I don't know for sure that there's
a "wonder gene," I thank my parents daily for passing it on
to me. I only wish they were here to watch as the fruits of
the freedom and education they allowed me are passed on so
gratefully to you.
You probably know where I'm going with this. Advice. Here
First, as soon as this is over, hug your parents and
thank them. Then let them take all the photographs they
want. When we come to do a story on you for winning the
Nobel prize or an election or for cleaning up your town
dump, you'll be glad to have those pictures.
Next, don't let us in unless it's to celebrate that prize
or the presidency or something else you're proud of. At the
risk of getting fired from my job or at least shunned by my
producers, I urge you to confess your personal problems
someplace other than on television.
Last, when you climb that mountain or write that book or
get that tenure and/or start that family, please: don't
gossip on elevators, don't buy a gun, don't use exclamation
points when you write, and don't hesitate to call yourself a
feminist. Above all, don't change your address without
telling the College. I'm a trustee now and we need you.
There's a new millennium coming. We'll be hearing more
about it than we may want to. Let me remind you what Susan
B. Anthony told a newspaper reporter 100 years ago:
"I am filled with sadness at this passing of the
nineteenth century. I feel as if I had buried my dearest
friend, but then, this new century will be just as good."
The reporter interrupted with a question: "Well, Miss
Anthony, what message have you for the new century?"
Anthony -- who was about to turn 80 -- responded with
eloquence: "We women must be up and doing. I can hardly sit
still when I think of the great work waiting to be done.
Above all, women must be in earnest, we must be thorough,
and fit ourselves for every emergency; we must be trained,
and carefully prepare ourselves for the place we wish to
hold in the world ... for woman and her influence, in making
and shaping of affairs, will have to be reckoned with."
You have already proven you are a force to be reckoned
with. So in the spirit of Susan B. Anthony, I urge you to
continue to harness that might, to continue -- in her words
-- to be "up and doing."
And if anyone, ever, should ask whether you know your
place, the answer, of course, is Yes -- my place is