I have participated in 22 graduations.
That list includes my own from Northwestern University for my undergraduate degree (I didn’t return for my masters’ graduation ceremony), my three sons’ college graduations, and 18 graduations where I sat on the stage in full regalia as a professor.
One of the best was when Stevie Wonder received an honorary degree and let me take a snapshot with him.
With rare exceptions, the commencement speakers over all those years were mostly male, including President Barack Obama in 2013 who spoke when my son, Brendan, graduated from the Ohio State University. It was unforgettable.This graduation season more women are giving key commencement speeches than ever before. #womenleaders Click To Tweet
But this year’s commencement season looks and feels different.
According to the Associated Press, “For the first time in at least two decades, the majority of the nation’s top colleges are featuring women as their spring commencement speakers, a shift that industry experts credit to the wave of female empowerment that has fueled the #MeToo movement.”
Yale University hosts Hillary Clinton. MIT hosts Sheryl Sandberg. Vanderbilt University will feature Amal Clooney, while Dartmouth University chose Mindy Kaling, and Ava DuVernay will be speaking at Cornell University, according to the AP.
“Women have been earning 57 percent of college degrees for decades now, so to begin with there are more women with academic credentials. But let’s face it, this year’s increase in the number of women making commencement speeches is more directly related to a larger movement to elevate women’s voices,” says Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead.
“From #MeToo to #TimesUp to Take The Lead, women are rising as never before. So everyone wants on the gender parity bandwagon now. That’s OK by me,” Feldt says.
Beyond tokenism, it’s a high visibility shift and notable indication at a time when we are working toward the mission of gender parity in leadership. More women in 2018 than ever before are taking to the stage doling out life and leadership advice.More women in 2018 than ever before are taking to the stage doling out life and leadership advice. #Commencement2018 Click To Tweet
The Associated Press has done the math and “women account for nearly 60 percent of the speakers at the 25 schools that have the largest endowments and traditionally carry the clout to draw big names to the lectern. By contrast, women made up just a quarter of the speakers at those schools over the previous 19 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of university records.”
Certainly, there are many more fantastic commencement speeches in the coming weeks, but here is a rundown of our favorite six speakers in the first round of women leaders addressing thousands and thousands of graduates who may toss the mortar board and cheer.
Mae C. Jemison, MD, physician, scientist, humanitarian and astronaut at Creighton University: “There are incredible days ahead of you. We have incredible capabilities right now. We have the ability include all our cohabitants in the bounty of this planet, the beauty of this world. We have to open our arms to the best possibilities inside of us. We can’t shy away from things, we have to live deeply. We have to connect to the spiritual and the emotional. We are not our complete selves if we deny that.”
Oprah Winfrey, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: “Vote. Vote. Vote. Pay attention to what the people who claim to represent you are doing and saying in your name and on your behalf. They represent you and if they’ve not done right by you or if their policies are at odds with your core beliefs, then you have a responsibility to send them packing.”
Cynthia Nixon, actress, candidate for New York state governor at Helene Fuld College of Nursing: “When you stand up with courage, what you can achieve may surprise even you. And that’s what I want to share with you here today: never doubt that you can make a space big enough for yourself in this world.”
Queen Latifah (Dana Elaine Owens), actress, hip-hop legend and producer, at Rutgers-Newark: “I was taller than the other girls, bigger than the other girls, different than the other girls. By the time I was 13, I had body. All of it. It was all there. I was looking for a role model to emulate, but nobody looked quite like me. And then I found myself standing on a lonely stage in our school production of The Wiz…[…] I was [the big], tall Dorothy. But someone must’ve thought I had an OK voice, because I got to sing the finale, ‘Home’. I was petrified. I looked out into the audience and just tried to focus on my mother’s smiling face in that crowd. And I sang, ‘When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.’ And suddenly, I wasn’t Dana. I wasn’t Dorothy. I wasn’t big Dorothy. And for the very first time I can remember, I was more than comfortable in my own skin. I was confident. I knew I had found myself. Bringing someone else to life on the stage in a way that came from deep inside, home wasn’t just a song. It was a foundation that taught me I didn’t need a role model. I didn’t need to try to be like someone else. I just needed to be me.”
Jennifer Nettles, singer, songwriter, Agnes Scott College: “I want you to be the boss ladies of your own lives. I want you to live authentically in your truth. I want you to be so in touch with your truth that nothing can pull you off of your path. I want you to live in the marrow, in the richness, to walk the edge of the knife called life.”
Andrea Mitchell, broadcast journalist, author, University of Pennsylvania: “Do not presume to know who you might become, because you never finish becoming. f you know something is wrong, write that letter to the editor. Support a candidate of any political persuasion. Be involved. Speak up. Gain strength from the example of the teenagers in Parkland who transformed tragedy into purpose. Feel empowered by the women and men who are no longer willing to tolerate the abuse of sexual predators. #MeToo and #TimesUp can teach us.”Whether or not the commencement speech takeaway is as inane as wear sunscreen or profound as a comment on humanity, it's a noteworthy that more women this year gave their best to tomorrow's leaders. #thefutureisfemale Click To Tweet
Whether or not the commencement speech takeaway is as inane as “wear sunscreen” or profound as a comment on humanity, it’s noteworthy that more women this year gave their best to tomorrow’s leaders. It’s a sign.