Congratulations to the class of 2010! I bring you heartfelt greetings from that other Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr College. This is a day that you will remember all your lives. You’ve worked for it, you’ve earned it, and I feel privileged to share it with you.
Let me also offer congratulations and commiseration to parents and grandparents. I expect that this is a bittersweet day – one you’ve both longed for and dreaded. Wasn’t it only yesterday that your little girl left for her first day of school? Now she stands at the brink of independence, a milestone you have made possible through your love and support.
Let me also acknowledge another milestone – both Bryn Mawr School and Bryn Mawr College turn 125 this year! I think we look pretty good for our age. In fact, we’re both at the top of our game.
Your school and mine share more than a birthday and a history of outstanding women’s education. Present at the creation of both institutions was a remarkable woman from Baltimore named Martha Carey Thomas. In one year, she advanced the cause of women’s education by founding Bryn Mawr School and becoming the inaugural dean of Bryn Mawr College, the first college to offer women both undergraduate and graduate studies.
You may know the stories about her: When American universities barred her from earning a doctorate, Carey Thomas set sail for Europe, where she became the first woman to earn a PhD summa cum laude at the University of Zurich. At age 26, with no experience to offer, Thomas sought the presidency of Bryn Mawr College. She settled for Dean, and then became its second president nine years later.
Because she knew that girls in Baltimore lacked access to an education comparable to that available for boys, she and her friends established a girls’ school that prepared students for the most demanding scholastic endeavors.
Carey Thomas didn’t suffer fools gladly and many 19th century ideas about women were foolish indeed. Women couldn’t vote, practice law or serve on juries in most states. Prominent educators still debated whether education was wasted on women. Some, including the then president of Harvard, doubted that women had the intellectual and physical capacity for academic rigor.
One hapless graduation speaker at Bryn Mawr School, who should have known better, said he hoped that students had not been “infected” by the “poison of suffrage.” Ms. Thomas, an ardent suffragist, took the stage and thanked the speaker for his “entertaining address,” but clarified for him that the young women of Bryn Mawr had very contemporary ideas.
In time, more doors of opportunity opened to women, due, in no small part, to institutions like ours, which gave women the chance to prove their capabilities. Nonetheless, it would be another 35 years after the founding of the two Bryn Mawrs before American women won the constitutional right to vote.
I think it is astonishing that such pivotal battles for women’s rights were fought within the memory of people living today, and even more astonishing: The battle for equal access to education is still being waged in many areas of the world.
Today, millions of girls are denied even the most basic education. Poverty, gender bias, cultural constraints and violence keep them out of the classroom. According to the United Nations, 43 million girls do not get the primary school education to which they are entitled. For girls your age, the situation is even worse. Nine out of 10 girls attend secondary school in industrialized countries, but barely one in four does so in the least developed countries. Without education, girls must often endure a cycle of poverty, dependency, and exploitation.
If you want to know more, read a recent book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn entitled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,. Yes, there are heartbreaking stories in this book, but the authors also show how investing in education and opportunity for women can not only transform individual lives but can also unleash the economic potential of half the world.
You are among the very fortunate. Your Bryn Mawr education has prepared you for almost any goal you can imagine. I know for most of you, the next stop is college. In fact, I expect you’ll be spending a good portion of your summer thinking about, planning and shopping for college. So I will conclude by exercising a commencement speaker’s privilege of offering advice.
Over the years, I’ve seen thousands of first-year students arrive on campus – excited, nervous, a little homesick, but eager for this defining step in their educational journeys. So based on first-hand experience, here are McAuliffe’s three sure-fire tips to make the most of those four wonderful years:
Today, an important chapter in your life comes to a close. As you say good-bye to Bryn Mawr School, take pride in all you have achieved. You are well-prepared for the academic journey that lies ahead. Rest assured that wherever you go, someone like me will be delighted to see you coming.
On a high ridge of the Bryn Mawr College campus stands a stunningly beautiful copper beech. At the base of its trunk there is a plaque announcing that this gorgeous tree was a gift to Bryn Mawr College in 1985 from the Bryn Mawr School in celebration of our joint centenaries. As I pass that tree in my daily rounds, I shall think of you and send you warm wishes for success in your new lives. Congratulations to 2010!
“Getting girls into school: a development benefit for all,” International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, (www.3ieimpact.org), May 2009
www.childinfo.org: UNICEF Global Databases 2009, UNESCO Institute for Statistics Data Centre, March 2009