Elisabeth Armstrong: Let’s agree to disagree at college commencements

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Christine Lagarde has decided to withdraw her acceptance to be the Smith commencement speaker for 2014. She wanted to avoid the disapproval of Smith students and faculty members, registered in a widely circulated petition and in letters to her. The letters and petition questioned the role of the International Monetary Fund’s policies in exacerbating global inequality in ways that particularly target women. Lagarde declined because she wanted to keep the commencement “celebratory.”

Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, echoed Lagarde’s words. Last week she decided not to speak at Rutgers University’s commencement, after students and faculty expressed disapproval of her role in the Iraq War. Rice, like Lagarde, said the commencement should remain a “celebration.” Refusing to speak in the face of potential protests is rare in the history of Smith College and other U.S. colleges and universities. Elizabeth Dole spoke at Smith in 1998, and Madeline Albright did the same in 2003. Both faced some disapproval, and in the case of Albright, a student protest.

Smith College’s new president, Kathleen McCartney described her disappointment with the withdrawal of Lagarde. She reminded the college community of its commitment to “free thought and diversity of opinion.” She suggested that Smith should reconsider the wisdom of publicly registering any disapproval of Lagarde as a speaker.

But commencement is a celebration. It celebrates the development of hard-won knowledge and thoughtful ethics, tested by arguments and counter-arguments, in a rigorous and diverse learning environment. Dissent over who should hold the honor of giving the commencement speech is deeply linked to the celebration in this ceremony.

How did Smith students, if not its faculty, react in the past when the college had virtually no women invited to give the commencement speech? Did students shake their heads over the first 91 years when only four women spoke to them at their graduation? Did they merely fold their hands in their laps in 1955 when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson told them that women without an education did the best job of raising boys since they weren’t bothered by “broader horizons”? Or in 1961 when correspondent James Reston told Smith graduates he was against female segregated education? Or the following year when United Nations Representative Frances Plimpton advised them to use their education “to instruct your husbands and other admirers as to the issues before the country and as to exactly how they should vote on them”?

The speaker who broke the trend in 1971 gives us some idea. Gloria Steinem had just founded Ms. magazine but did not wield prestige in the corridors of power, nor did she enjoy unabashed approval from sections of the women’s liberation movement. In her commencement address she told Smith graduates about inequalities that no one should accept: of gender, of race and of class. Steinem’s speech demolished the everyday sexism that limited the horizons of Smith graduates. She pushed the largely white audience of women to fight racism as their own feminist fight, and to challenge elitism as a legacy of their own elite advantages.

Steinem did not seek resigned acquiescence from her audience of young Smith graduates, she argued with them. I do not agree with a base assumption that the Smith community’s dissent stifled Lagarde’s speech. It did not. She didn’t want to see or hear our disagreement, so she decided not to join the party. Her choice. She has access to muffled rooms that silence our analysis on a daily basis and has chosen not to leave them.

Elisabeth Armstrong of Northampton is an associate professor at Smith College.


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