I’m tempted to begin my remarks to you this afternoon with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday, Bryn Mawr, Happy Birthday, Bryn Mawr,” but some sense of decorum plus a less than stellar singing voice will save you from such a performance.
Yet surely we will have much to celebrate this year as we mark our 125th anniversary, looking back upon a history of which we can be justly proud and looking forward to a future that must engage our best efforts. The title words of the international conference the College will host later this month, the two words ‘heritage’ and ‘hope’, capture this anniversary spirit of simultaneous retrospection and anticipation.
Speaking especially to you seniors, they also capture the point at which you are presently poised: both looking back at all you have done during your years at Bryn Mawr and looking forward to these culminating semesters—and beyond.
Bryn Mawr’s ‘heritage’ can be sketched with broad strokes – a tradition of academic excellence, a trust in individual integrity, a delight in traditions that bind the community – but it can also be discovered in the countless documents and photos that constitute the College archives. Later this year we will publish a splendid volume, entitled Offerings to Athena, that has harvested those archives to great effect. I had fun this summer poring over proofs of Offerings in preparation for writing a Foreword to it. I also spent some happy hours immersed in the publications that marked previous anniversaries of the College. Articles and essays by former faculty, students and alumnae brought the Bryn Mawr of earlier years quite vividly to life for me.
Here’s an example from the 1960 issue of the alumnae journal that commemorated our 75th anniversary. An alumna from the thirties (Esther Buchen Wagner ’38), who took a PhD in French and then went on to publish short stories in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s, describes the experience of submitting her student papers to a member of the Bryn Mawr faculty. She speaks about suffering “the painful but highly formative experience of seeing a hundred pages of [his] material covered with fine, terribly readable handwriting calling into question every awkwardness, flaccidity, unjustifiable neologism, double noun, possible superfluous comma, imaginably offensive colloquialism, even ‘disagreeable sequence of consonantal sounds’.”
I suspect that many of you seniors will recognize some of your own experience in the words of this alumna. Certainly the legacy of deeply engaged teaching and rigorous expectations lives on in our faculty of today, an enduring part of our ‘heritage’. But what of our ‘hope’? Who shall we be as this small, residential liberal arts colleges that remains proudly and primarily focused on the education of women? I would like to suggest that one of the things we can be is a voice, both individually and institutionally, for the education and empowerment of women world-wide. The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who will speak at our anniversary conference later in September, has issued a compelling call to conscience. Kristof argues, and I agree with him, that just as slavery was the paramount moral challenge of the nineteenth-century, the brutality routinely inflicted upon so many women and girls around the globe is the paramount moral challenge of this century.
The brutality starts before birth. In some parts of the world, female fetuses are aborted at much higher rates than male. The Nobel economist, Amartya Sen, drew striking attention to this some years ago when he began talking about the 100 million missing women and calculating the skewed male/female ratios emerging from sex-selective abortion. For those girl babies who are born, millions more die in early childhood because they are not given the same nutrition or medical care as boys. In adolescence and adulthood, countless women face the horrors of sexual slavery, war-prompted rape and disabling or deadly childbirth. People are beginning to talk about this routine violence against women as a ‘gendercide’.
Of course, many individuals and organizations have been working hard to address these horrors and they have made much headway. Yet for far too long “women’s issues” have been pushed to the margins, as national and international attention focuses chiefly on the economy and security. But that marginalization is beginning to change with the growing realization that educating and empowering women is key to both a nation’s economic growth and it’s domestic security. The appointment by President Obama of Melanne Verveer, who will also speak at our anniversary conference, as Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues is a strong signal of this change. So is the expansion of microfinance programs around the globe. CARE, whose director will be honored at Bryn Mawr later this year, has put women and girls at the center of its anti-poverty campaign. Jody Williams, our Nobel Laureate commencement speaker last May, who has organized the other women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, sees women’s empowerment as central to the achievement of sustainable peace.
Even the for-profit world is waking up. Look at Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program or Nike’s investment in health and education programs for adolescent girls. Whether prompted by a sense of corporate social responsibility or by the dawning realization that gender equality is smart economics, I think we are witnessing a ‘consciousness raising’ of unprecedented proportions. As a premier women’s college, Bryn Mawr is well-positioned to partner with such efforts. We have the interest and concern, we have the educational programs and we have the experience in dealing with diversity that a world-wide effort to enhance the education and empowerment of women needs.
Especially for you seniors, I am proud that your final semesters at Bryn Mawr will offer you increased opportunities to build your own awareness of these critically important issues and prepare you to be informed advocates for the betterment of women across the globe. Welcome to a very special new year as we celebrate all that Bryn Mawr College has been and all that it can promise to be.
30 August 2010