Meryl Streep delivered a brilliant address in 2010 when my daughter graduated from Barnard College. A hard act to follow. On Monday, Barack Obama was the speaker for the Barnard class of 2012. Within moments of his final inspiring words, the pundits slammed the speech as ‘political’. They were right; the President’s speech was profoundly political, exhorting 596 incredibly smart and accomplished young women to go out that same day and start changing the world. But it wasn’t ‘political’ in the way the talking heads meant it, with the implied taint of partisan Democratic New York liberal elitism. No, it was far more subversive than that, revolutionary even.
Obama called upon these women to use their educations to stand up for the equal and inalienable rights of all Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He warned that they faced a world where they would be paid less than men for the same work, and where other Americans were dedicated to curtailing their access to health care and control of their bodies. He warned of the struggles they would face juggling work and family. How his own mother left him to go work with early microfinancing for women, how his grandmother was there for him. Yet regardless of the difficulties ahead, he continued, it was incumbent upon them to stand up for the rights of all Americans, some of whom cannot speak for themselves, because that’s what Americans do.
We struggle as refugees and immigrants to reach the freedom of America, eventually win citizenship, and pursue our individual dreams and happinesses. In doing so, we are obliged, in return for those innumerable privileges, to keep the doors of America open for the next arriving dreamers. The current mood is to pull up the draw-bridge and pour boiling oil from the ramparts on latecomers, as though the idea of America were sold out and there was no more room.
Get involved, grab a seat at the table -the head of the table!- he told them, and work so that every other American will have the same rights and opportunities as you. Barack Obama is a man who has deep respect for women, and who believes the world would be a saner and less violent place if they ran the show. What better forum than the top women’s college in the nation to speak to all women, and his own two daughters, about doing the right thing?