In the spring of 2006,1 was asked to give the convocation address at Bryn Mawr College (BMC), from which I graduated in 1972. Upon accepting the honor, I did what I had been taught to do there-research.
The college provided me with the texts of more than one hundred speeches dating from 1889 when Paul Shorey, a professor of Greek and Latin, addressed the first group of twenty-four graduating students. He told them that BMC was no mere high school for girls but a potent force in the intellectual life of "America."1 Speaking in 1919, Bryn Mawr's own president, M. Carey Thomas argued that the "inseparable corollaries" of "women's rights" were "women suffrage, equal educational opportunity and equal pay for equal work."
Not all speakers agreed. Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts advised the graduates of 1898 that "every American woman" had to understand that it was "not only her function to be the companion, helper, comfort and nurse of her husband and son and brother in misfortune and sickness and sorrow, but that it is her special function to be his stimulant to heroism and his shield against dishonor." Yet William Howard Taft, giving a commencement speech in 1910 when he was president of the United States, had a very different view. Taft told his audience that "actual experiment has shown the claim that there is any difference in favor of man in the quickness of learning, or the thoroughness of acquisition of knowledge, to be entirely unfounded. Indeed . . . the averages of women are higher than that of men." Moreover, as Virginia Woolf advised in her book, A Room of One's Own, President Taft stressed women's economic independence; he urged graduates to enter professions and the business world so that they could be financially independent.
Jump forward to 1979 to capture both the speed and the slowness of change. Jeannette Ridion Piccard, described on the roster of speakers as a "balloonist," titled her talk "Caution." Piccard had entered Bryn Mawr in 1914 and she reported that in 1920, when women got the vote, she expected many doors to open. But Piccard's own efforts to gain ordination as an Episcopal priest proved otherwise; she was not able to take her orders until the 1970s. Like Virginia Woolf, Piccard focused on doors, but for her, they were not a source of solace but a barrier. Piccard counseled that the only way to move forward was by "each door being cracked, forced, or unlocked and opened."
Issues of nationality, ethnicity, religion, and race enter the archive of speeches during World War II. The first speaker from abroad, coming in 1940, was the Chinese ambassador Dr. Hu Shih, who remarked on "Mr. Hitler" and his armies, as he told the students that they had to take moral responsibility for the consequences of the decisions they made.2 In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. joined President Robert Goheen of Princeton to speak at graduation and, in the decades thereafter, stellar women and men of all colors can be found as regulars in the ranks of invitees.
This set of historical materials provided a window both into changing attitudes and norms about women and race in the United States and into a particular literary genre-the convocation address. Such materials are in need of more scholarly attention as they are an under-mined source of women's histories. Some were wonderful to read and, as a lawyer and a person interested in, if not always loyal to, social customs, I also regarded them as precedents.
I wondered about whether-in light of the joy of the occasion-I should raise the subject of torture, intellectually apropos as it, like attitudes toward women, was an example of changing American mores. As justification for mentioning this awful subject when addressing a commencement audience, I could have cited previous speakers who had taken up the topics of war, terrorism, poverty, and hunger.
But that was not why I decided to talk about torture in the spring of 2006 or why I have done so on many other occasions since. …