Krishanti Vignarajah's Commencement Address Transcript: "The Progress, Plight & Promise of Women in America"

At the May 20 undergraduate Commencement ceremony, Kristhanti Vignarajah, First Lady Michelle Obama’s former policy director, congratulated Hood’s 282 graduates and asked for their help in promoting gender equity as they head out into the world to make a difference, delivering “a call to action on behalf of a generation that desperately needs you.”

“Today, I want to talk with you about the historic progress and modern plight of women in this country, about the journey that remains from citizenship to leadership, from having a seat at table to being at the head of it,” she said.

“To the men in the audience, this movement is about the mothers who brought you into this world, the daughters you will one day help bring into the world, and the women who are or will become your partners and best friends in everything you do. I don’t say this simply because the fate of women impacts the future of men, but because we need your help. Achieving true equality may be the one thing women cannot do alone.”

Following is a full transcript of Vignarajah’s remarks. Watch the video.

Good morning and congratulations, Class of 2017!

Thank you graduates, thank you President Chapdelaine for that incredibly warm introduction and forinviting me to help celebrate this magical day with you. Faculty, parents, friends, invited guests, uninvited guests… It’s a true honor to be here with you all.

What President Chapdelaine didn’t tell you, and what you may not be able to see thanks to this black slimming gown, which I’ve repurposed as a fashion-forward maternity dress, is that your graduation speaker this year is 8½ months pregnant.

How enlightened and brave and daring of Prez Chap is that? Enlightened and daring or—really, really desperate.

Don’t worry, my husband Collin and I have told our baby girl that she is not to arrive early. As I understand it, children always do what their parents tell them. But, just in case she proves defiant and decides to surprise us, according to Google Maps, we can get to Frederick Memorial in 4 minutes. And obviously Google Maps is never wrong.

Pregnant or not, nothing could keep me from being here to celebrate this special day with you. Let me congratulate your parents and grandparents and relatives—the ones who watched you take your first steps and first breaths on this earth and today get to watch you walk across a sacred stage and take their breath away. Congratulations to the big sisters and big brothers who have always believed in you, and the little sisters and little brothers who were shocked you made it out of high school. Congratulations to the friends and teachers and loved ones who have sweetened every success and lent a shoulder for every setback.

I especially have to thank Hood College for conferring upon me an honorary degree, officially making me a doctor today. Although I have three advanced degrees, served two First Ladies, and am about to give the gift of life, I suspect only now will my 79-year-old, South Asian mother finally be proud of me.

Graduates, we assemble today to honor your achievements, the extraordinary spellbinding journey of the Class of 2017. Congratulations!

Your college days have been marked by defining moments for America: in technology, from the arrival of autonomous robots to private shuttles to space; in sports, from the Cubs winning a World Series after a century, to Maryland by itself bringing home more gold medals than all but 5 countries in the world; in pop culture, from the meteoric rise of Hamilton to the groundbreaking drop of Lemonade; in history, from the first truly global climate treaty to the Supreme Court recognizing marriage equality as the law of our land; and in politics, from the second term of the first black president to the election of the first orange one.

What an extraordinary 4 years! And while all of that unfolded around you, you were hard at work. From donning “dinks” on your first day here at Hood, to papers and exams that contributed to countless all-nighters, to friends and teachers who ignited your imagination and intellect, you have at last arrived on this day of ritual to collect your reward. And you deserve it more than most. Many of you have taken out loans and worked your way through school. You have juggled responsibilities publicly but struggled privately, confiding only to family and friends how hard this has been. You have no doubt doubted yourselves and been tempted to quit. But just as your parents raised you and following the proud tradition of this school and our nation, you never did.

Which is why we gather here to congratulate you.

But I am also here to deliver a call to action on behalf of a generation that desperately needs you. Today, I want to talk with you about the historic progress and modern plight of women in this country, about the journey that remains from citizenship to leadership, from having a seat at table to being at the head of it.

I’ll be honest, a few years ago, a few months ago, I would have hesitated to take on a topic that risked defining me by only one of the many things that defines me. But even that is one of those hesitations that men have never had.

I have had the privilege of working for two of the most amazing women in the world, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. And I was raised by another, my mother. If my mother and mentors taught me anything, it is that it is well past time for us to follow Sheryl Sandberg’s directive to lean in.

So here we go.

For the first time in American history, we are at risk of bequeathing to the next generation a country worse than we found it, more divided here at home and less secure around the globe. Our parents and grandparents and their parents and their grandparents left us a better world than the one they inherited, and they had to face down a civil war, a great depression, the rise of the most poisonous ideologies the world has ever known, and the threat of nuclear winter. So, let’s try to keep it in perspective the next time the line’s too long at Starbucks! Or when our tweets don’t get as many followers as we think they should. Of course that’s coming from someone who’s tweeted 18 times to 88 followers. If I break a hundred thanks to this speech, I’m breaking out the champagne, I mean, sparkling cider!

Each time, those generations vanquished true mortal threats to the nation and never relinquished their sacred duty as stewards of humanity, mindful of the generations to come. Long before the First Lady put it so perfectly, our forebears embodied what she meant when she said, “when they go low, we go high.”

I should make an important clarification, because of something I overheard while walking through the Pergola. The First Lady said, “when they go low, we go high,” not, “when they go low, we get high.” So parents, do not let them try to quote the First Lady for that.

I’ll admit the first time the First Lady said this in a private meeting, I also misunderstood it. My initial reaction was, oh great, here’s another short joke. Michelle Obama lording over me that she’s a foot taller. I realize that sounds a bit sensitive, but you’ve got to understand, in my first meeting with First Lady, she teased me incessantly about my height and joked that the White House needed to institute minimum height requirements, like they have for roller coasters.

Thanks to generations of Americans who have taken the high road, with regard to the advancement of women, there is real progress to report. And Hood College has been leading the charge. When Mrs. Obama created Let Girls Learn, what she imagined is what you have had here at Hood College for a century, an institution of exceptional learning chartered in 1893 for “the promotion and advancement of women.”

Women remain underrepresented across the country in science and math, but here at Hood, with one exception, every one of your mathematics professors are women. An MBA candidate who will graduate from Hood this afternoon helped manufacture a cancer-fighting drug that helped President Jimmy Carter fight off metastatic brain cancer.

We lament that we have never had a woman as President. Well, Hood College has had three. And your student government elects women all the time. None of them are tweeting out insanity in all caps at 3 a.m.

What I have found uplifting in my conversations about this subject with the graduating men of Hood College is how much they share these same values and commitments. The young men I spoke with already understood what it has taken centuries for the rest of us to figure out: that unleashing the promise of women advances the interests of us all. To the men in the audience, this movement is about the mothers who brought you into this world; the daughters you will one day bring into the world; the women who are or will become your partners and best friends in everything you do.

I don’t say this simply because the fate of women impacts the future of men, but because we need your help. Achieving true equality may be the one thing women cannot do alone. In fact, this past January, we all marched shoulder to shoulder with our mothers and sisters and daughters, but also hand in hand with our fathers and brothers and sons, together standing up for the values that unite and define us.

And we are seeing encouraging signs of progress, not just at Hood College, but around the country. For the first time, women equal or outnumber men in colleges and universities, graduate schools, law schools, med schools. More women than men will earn master’s and doctorate degrees this year. And that’s not counting the one I just got.

We also have more female U.S. Senators than ever before, three women serving on the Supreme Court, millions of cracks in that highest, hardest glass ceiling, and the first woman in history to win the popular vote for President of the United States.

We live in a country where women have made strides toward equality that just a few short years ago would have seemed unattainable—and a few generations ago was unthinkable.

There is certainly progress to celebrate, but our arc is incomplete. Women have ascended from property and slavery to subordinate spouses and second-class citizens. Now we must make the leap from citizenship to leadership. We have won for ourselves, in principle and on paper, the right to speak, the right to vote, the right to shape the destiny of our bodies and our families. Now we must secure the right to shape the destiny of our communities and our country.

To echo an idea civil rights leader Julian Bond once shared in the context of race, our progress should not become the death of the movement. Let it not be said that the fiercest obstacle to achieving equality for women was the temptation to think we already had. For virtually every stride forward, there has been a reversal, a regression, a retreat.

So, when a 36-year-old commencement speaker says — “Equal pay for equal work is the exception.” Or that women’s opportunities to advance at upper levels of management are “rare enough to be displayed in a museum.” — It seems like she would be telling you something you already know. The thing is that speaker isn’t me, although I appreciate the compliment that I could pass for 36. That was actually Gloria Steinem delivering the commencement address at Vassar College nearly 50 years ago, in 1970.

Yet today women are still only paid 83 cents on the dollar. If that stays the same, the men graduating today will earn a million dollars more over their career than the women sitting next to them. Unfortunately, the higher up the ladder we climb, the worse it gets. Women have led IBM and Pepsi and GM, but those are the exceptions. The reality is that less than five percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women today.

Women have quietly endured these everyday inequities, and many others, for long enough. From not being called on in math class when you know you know the answer, to being groped by a stranger on a crowded bus. These daily indignities produce wounds that do not heal.

We see those wounds in the empty chairs on exam day when not a single woman takes the AP computer science exam in Montana or Mississippi.

We see them in the culture of silence and shame that shrouds too many college campuses, where one in three women are sexually assaulted or raped during college, while at the same time 89% of those schools report not a single complaint.

We see the broader impact here at home in Maryland where no woman currently holds an elected federal or statewide office. All 8 members of Congress, both Senators, the Attorney General, the Comptroller, the Lt. Governor and the Governor are all men. That means those 14 offices have as many women today as they did a century ago, before women could vote — or two centuries ago, when women could not own property separate from their husbands.

Pennsylvania to the north is just as bad with no women. West Virginia and Virginia to the south are faring nominally better, with one female elected official each. For those of you keeping score, out of 66 federal and statewide elected positions in this region representing more than 15 million women, only 2 (yes, 2) are held by women. And none of those four states have ever had a female Governor.

In Congress, over the past quarter century, women have gained only about 3 seats every two years in the House of Representatives. At this pace, women won’t catch up to men until 2100, when everyone here, except your little brothers and sisters, will be over 100 years old.

Graduates, I wish for every one of you to live to a hundred, but not for the sake of awaiting a future that should already have arrived.

I began this morning with a reference to my timeless, inspiring mother. She was likely born a century before she was supposed to, but declined to wait for the future to arrive. On the other side of the Earth, 80 years ago, like my daughter today, my mother was on the brink of being born. Born into a world that had not come as far or as fast she needed it to.

Back then, back there, women did not delay marriage or children, or attend school, let alone high school and college. But my mom is, let’s say, a little defiant. She went to school in villages in Sri Lanka and then to college in India, and became a math teacher in a period when math and women were never in the same sentence. She was educated and beautiful, but turned down marriage proposals until her late 30s when my father, the physics teacher down the street, came along. She had me when she was 42 and got her Ph.D. when she was 62.

She and my father brought our family to Maryland when I was a newborn and my brother was 3, with no jobs and $200 in their pockets, because the circumstances of staying in Sri Lanka were unimaginable. By the time my parents fled, thousands had been killed, children were forced to become soldiers, as the country descended into civil war.

My daughter’s life will be easier because my parents’ lives were hard. For me, that is the American dream.

Truth is, defiant and ambitious, my mom is an anachronism, and she imagined for herself and her family a world ahead of its time. And that has made all the difference. She would have fit in perfectly today as a student at Hood College, and I’m honored to have her here today to help celebrate all of you.

Let me end by asking you to imagine with me, as my mom once did, a world ahead of its time.

America’s first 45 Presidents were men. Imagine a world where, not the next 4 or 5, but the next 45 Presidents are women. 900 of the 950 Nobel Prizes awarded so far have gone to men. Imagine if 950 of the next thousand are won by women. Or imagine a world where women represent not 5%, not 55%, but 95% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

What is remarkable is that for many of us what I just described is harder to conceive than curing cancer or a colony on Mars. But maybe that goal shouldn’t strike us as audacious or outlandish in the first place. After all, it is literally the mirror of our history, just with the shoe on the other foot. Like shooting an arrow, perhaps we have to aim higher than our mark, aware of the gravitational drag of discrimination, prejudice, and patriarchy.

Graduates, everyone knows that James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were contemporaries who lived in the same era and shaped our nation. Now just imagine if Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Oprah all lived in the same day and age. The truth is they do — they always have. They are born across the country and around the globe every day. We have just never had a world that has allowed all of them to become the women they were meant to be.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we got even close to our mark, if the left and right feet of humanity waltzed in tandem, danced in true harmony, for the first time since the dawn of civilization. Together, we could defeat the world’s deadliest diseases and conquer its greatest perils, from apathy to poverty to segregation to prejudice to terror to hate. Help us rebuild a world that fully unlocks the elixir of human ingenuity to overcome humanity’s greatest injustices, from economic inequity to the educational divide.

Graduates, may you be the heroines and heroes of your lives. May you never be deterred by the fear of falling down or the height of your shadow. May your children inherit schools where they learn the periodic table and the constellations above like we learned the alphabet, where a young girl is ashamed neither of her mind nor of her body, where learning about Schrodinger’s Cat is as much a part of growing up as The Cat in the Hat, where our children are judged not by the color of their skin or by their chromosomes, but by the content of their character and their intellect.

A change is coming, a changing of the guard, with a chance to change the stars. And whether we seize or squander that chance, whether our leaders at last look like America or whether we reverse course is up to all of you.

Our responsibility to care for this world is also now yours. So help us achieve the tomorrow we have imagined today. Class of 2017, congratulations!



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