The Power of All-Women’s Colleges
Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi ’62 delivered the keynote commencement address for undergraduate and graduate students at Mills College in Oakland, California, in May. Below are the Speaker’s remarks.
“Thank you, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Barbara Lee is nationally recognized as an outstanding leader, a champion for social justice, and a proud alumna of Mills College. We are so proud that she’s the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus – the conscience of the Congress. I would also like to thank President [Janet] Holmgren, a transformational leader at Mills for nearly 20 years. Thank you: Mills College board of trustees, faculty, staff, and friends, and the Oakland community. I would like to join you in acknowledging the parents, spouses, children, and entire families of the graduates today. Your love, hard work, and sacrifice have helped make today possible. And to the graduates: congratulations. Today is your day; with this honorary degree, I am proud to join the Mills College Class of 2010.
I’d like to pay special tribute to one member of our class today: Hazel Soares. As many of you know, Hazel is receiving her undergraduate degree today at the age of 94. As Mills says, “one destination, many paths.” In Hazel’s life, there have been 17 Speakers of the House. I was honored to accept your invitation to be your commencement speaker as the first woman Speaker of the House.
Since becoming the first woman Speaker, I’ve found that people are fascinated with firsts. Mills has a few firsts of its own:
- The first women’s college west of the Rockies;
- The first women’s college to offer a computer science major;
- The first business school in the West for women;
- The first and the only women’s college to ever reverse its decision to become coed!
Twenty years ago, modern-day suffragettes fought to preserve the all-women’s undergraduate experience at Mills. They fought; they won; they made a difference. I understand the importance of an all-women’s education; I’m a beneficiary of one myself. I’m a proud graduate of Washington, D.C.’s Trinity College: the oldest women’s Catholic college in America. And it was the confidence and education that I gained at an all-women’s college that helped me go from the kitchen to the Congress. I’m often asked by young women about the best path to take – whether to have children early in life, or to focus on career and then family. I’ve found there is no best path; there is only your path. As Mills says, there are many paths.
My path to the Speaker’s office was not planned. But what prepared me best to be a leader in Congress was raising my five children. Though I was active in politics, I never intended to seek public office myself. But in 1987, the opportunity presented itself to run for Congress. While honored with the suggestion, my concern was that my youngest child, Alexandra, was entering her senior year in high school. I prayed over my decision and asked my daughter thoughtfully – and with deepest sincerity – what she thought. I told her any decision is fine: I can stay at home with you, or go to Washington a few days a week to serve in Congress. My teenage daughter looked back at me and said, “Mom, get a life.” And so I did. When I did, I was ready for the opportunity to come to Congress. And when I got there I was ready for the chance to lead.
People had said to me, “you are going to love Congress because you love issues.” And indeed, I did. I studied the issues, I mastered the policy. And 14 years later, when I was urged to run for leadership, I was ready. When I was elected to leadership, I was invited to the White House for a meeting of congressional leaders. I wasn’t apprehensive because I had been to the White House for meetings many times before. But when the door closed, I realized that this meeting was unlike any other meeting I had been to; indeed it was unlike any meeting any woman had been to. Certainly, women had been to meetings at the White House as presidential appointees or staff. I was there as an elected leader of the House Democrats.
President Bush, ever-gracious, welcomed me as a new member of the leadership. As he began to talk about a legislative agenda, I started to feel very squeezed in my chair. It was getting more and more crowded. It was as if every woman who had worked to promote women’s opportunity was sitting in that chair with me – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, and every other pioneer who fought to gain the right to vote and empowerment for women. I heard them say, “At last, we have a seat at the table.” And then they were gone.
My next thought was, “We want more.” We want more women and more people of color to have seats at the table of power. This March, I was at the White House again – this time, when historic health care reform was signed into law by President Barack Obama. As the world watched this moment, so did Trinity College. They were very proud to have two alumnae there with the President that day: the first woman Speaker of the House, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius. We felt the power of all-women’s colleges, of women’s rightful seat at the table, and of our ability to make a difference.
Health care reform is my proudest achievement in Congress. But it would not have been possible without the leadership of President Obama. The morning after the bill passed the House, President Obama called me to say he was happier than the day he was elected. I told him, “Mr. President, I’m very happy, but not happier than the day you were elected. Because if you hadn’t been elected, this day would have never happened.”
The new health insurance reform law is making a difference in the lives of American families – and in your lives. For young people, for the first time in history, you are allowed to stay on your parent’s health care plans until you are 26 years old.
For children, and for all Americans, we ended the days where you can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
For seniors, we closed the Medicare prescription drug donut hole, and strengthened Medicare for generations to come.
For all Americans, health insurance reform gives you freedom: to change jobs, open a business, pursue your dreams and be creative and entrepreneurial.
And no longer is being a woman a pre-existing medical condition!
The bill also made the largest investment in college aid in our nation’s history:
- Lowering the cost of student loans
- Capping student loan payments
- Expanding Pell Grants
- Rewarding those who pursue public service with loan forgiveness
And that makes a real difference to the American people.
Being Speaker affords me many opportunities to listen and learn.
In my travels as Speaker, I have met with presidents, prime ministers, and kings. But what impressed and inspired me the most were my encounters with students.
The students I meet are weary of war. They want an end to violence – whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or the genocide in Darfur. They want to end global warming and preserve the planet – God’s beautiful creation. They want jobs, economic opportunity, and broadly-shared prosperity.
Students understand the need to make a difference in the world. In a time of uncertainty and challenge, you have clear aspirations – for peace and prosperity, at home and around the world. You are ready for change; you are impatient.
That’s what I hear in my travels. That’s what I see at Mills: impatience. And that is why I have such faith in the future.
You go into the world in a time of enormous challenges and consequential choices, which the Greeks summed up in the word: ananke.
As I have shared with other graduates, in classical Greek, ananke means destiny. It also means scarcity. The Greeks were suggesting that times of scarcity drive us to choose a destiny – and that these are moments when history can be shaped through deliberate choice.
Throughout our history, America has confronted and surmounted each moment of ananke. We did so because each generation, at each critical moment, understood the challenge, made a bold choice, and shaped a destiny of its own.
And now, as you leave this beautiful campus, you have the opportunity to continue to shape your own destiny. You will do so with an exceptional education, with the highest of aspirations, and with the love and support of this community.
May the garden that your graduating class has planted here be a symbol of the difference you will make in the world.
Thank you for this honorary degree. I am honored to be a member of the Class of 2010. To my classmates: you have a friend in the Speaker’s office.
God bless you.
God bless America.”