Gallaudet Commencement Speech

David Sadker
May 12, 2000






President Jordan, honored guests, family, friends, and graduates. I want you all to know that I thought long and hard about this speech: How to make it meaningful, interesting, and, most importantly, . . . short. I thought of Winston Churchill, who returned late in his life to speak to the graduating class of his former school. He slowly approached the podium, leaned toward the microphone, and said:

"Never give up. Never." Then Churchill spun around and took his seat. Now that’s brevity!

Your encouragement notwithstanding, I chose a different approach. What would graduating students want to hear about most? Then it came to me: . . . sex.

Did I say sex? I meant gender. Sorry. Not the raging hormones of biology, but subtle gender socialization that shapes all our lives. The gender revolution may well be the most significant social change of the twentieth century, and it is a revolution that will continue to influence your lives and careers in the years ahead. What a stroke of luck – that is the field that I have researched for over thirty years!

My work did not grow out of my college major, my graduate studies, or even careful career planning. I married into it. In the 1960s and 1970s, my late wife Myra and I were doctoral students. A husband and wife who were both full time graduate students would be unusual today: back then, it was really weird. Weird, but enlightening. We discovered that sitting in the same classroom, reading the same texts, preparing the same assignments, we were getting two very different educations. I was called on in class, or felt comfortable calling out. Myra was far more hesitant to speak, and was rarely called on. We co-authored articles and proposals, and do you know how people referred to our co-authored work? . . . . . That’s right: What a great article David wrote, What a terrific proposal idea David had. And for reasons I never fully understood . . . this bothered Myra. We were beginning to see subtle gender bias in a world in which blatant stereotypes were commonplace.

Gender stereotypes often determined career choices for graduates like you. Come to think of it, some of you may still be exploring career options, so to help you decide, I brought a book along. It is called, "I’m Glad I’m a Boy – I’m Glad I’m a Girl" (a lthough the book might have been entitled "I’m Gladder I’m a Boy").

In this book we learn that:

This book was not written in the 1930s or even 1950s. It was published in the 1970s, and Myra referred to it in her first book entitled, Sexism in School and Society, also published about the same time. Can you guess where Myra’s book enjoyed some of its strongest sales? – College libraries? . . . no. Trendy coffee shop/ book store combinations . . .no, they did not even exist back then. Sexism in School and Society was a hot seller in adult book stores . . .porno stores. You see, back then, the word "sexism" was indistinguishable from the word "sex." . . . The word "sexism" was first coined in 1970 at Cornell University, along with another phrase you might have heard of, "sexual harassment." Before 1970, these words did not exist. People thought Myra’s book was about Sex in School and Society. (Imagine their frustration when they turned to the chapter entitled "curriculum", only to find out that it really was about curriculum.)

Today, the word "sexism" evokes strong emotion and fierce political reaction. Attempts to eliminate sexism have transformed the work place, and political elections. Gender issues now effect school and religious practices, as well as how we relate to each other. Gender concerns influence this nation’s foreign policy. We are no longer willing to ignore the inhumane treatment of women as an acceptable cultural practice. Spousal rape and female circumcision, which in realty is genital mutilation, are not merely local customs; they are also violations of basic civil rights. In places like Afghanistan, millions of girls are denied the right to attend schools while women are denied the right to work or even walk in public unescorted. If illness strikes, girls and women alike are refused hospital care. Today, in some parts of the world, female infanticide, the killing of female children, is still practiced. In the emerging republics of Eastern Europe, women find themselves once again struggling for basic educational and employment rights. All this as the twenty-first century – your century – dawns.

While we are quick to condemn gender bias abroad, we are anxious to showcase our progress at home. Clearly, we have much to be proud of. But I am here today to tell you that these gains are at risk. I am here today to tell you that if the clock is turned back on gender equity in America, the advances we have made in all areas of civil rights, including the rights of people with disabilities, are also at risk.

Today, the media is filled with reports attacking the progress made by women and girls. . . . Have you heard that the feminist movement has "gone too far"? Women are now over 50 percent of college students, and more than 40 percent of law and medical students. Isn’t that too much? And how about that women’s world cup soccer team? Some argue that we have already invested too many resources in women.

What a lack of historical perspective! From colonial America until the twentieth century, girls were either banned from attending schools entirely, or segregated into a second rate education. Even in my school days, girls were prohibited from taking industrial arts, dissuaded from enrolling in advanced science and math courses, and only allowed to travel to the half court line in basketball. Those very same voices who today call for us to stop our gender equity efforts, were silent during 400 years of gender discrimination against women.

These critics, who author Susan Faludi termed the "backlash", are often funded by ultra-conservative far right "think tanks". But think tanks are not new. Over one hundred years ago, Professor Clarke ran his own Ivy League think tank. As a member of Harvard’s medical faculty, Dr. Clarke carefully explained that educating females would create medical problems. You see, when women study, their blood, originally destined for their ovaries, is redirected to their brain. Clarke warned that females who attend college would soon find themselves with shriveled ovaries, and over-active brains. Women who chose to study were well on the road to sterility and insanity. Congratulations, Class of 2000, you have proven Professor Clarke wrong!

While Clark is history, today’s backlash against women is having an impact. Title IX, the law that protects students from gender discrimination in schools and colleges, is under attack. Despite the booming economy, Congress has eliminated funding for almost all gender equity programs. Today, while over 140 nations have signed the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, called CEDAW, the United States is one of only six nations, along with Iran and Afghanistan, that refuses to sign the document.

Perhaps the most destructive and bizarre criticism of the women’s movement is that it is really a war on boys. A war no less. They charge that ensuring women’s rights is an assault on men. The truth is quite the opposite. The women’s movement has given boys and men a special gift – a new perspective on how gender roles shape and short-change males. Perhaps a personal example would be useful. When I was a young boy growing up in the Bronx, I was socialized into the male sex role stereotype. Call it "male intuition," but I just knew that some day I would be playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. In case you haven’t noticed, I am not playing shortstop. Nor are the other four million boys who had the same career plan in mind. Like most boys, I had a lot to learn about the joys and responsibilities of being a man, and being a super hero was not part of it.

Too many men today find themselves unprepared for partnerships or parenthood, for marriage to women or even working with women. If a man is to work well in today’s world, he best unlearn the sexist lessons of his own childhood, lessons that disparage girls and women. For me, the greatest joys of adulthood are found not on the sports diamond, but in marriage, in parenting my two daughters, and in working with wonderful colleagues. Despite what you might have read, men are not from Mars, and women are not from Venus. That would be an "easy out." We are all from Earth, and we need to learn to live and work together, to truly respect and care for one another. We have no time for a war against boys or girls.

Thirty-six years ago, I sat where you are sitting now. I’ll tell you a secret: I cannot remember who spoke at my commencement. This I can assure you: neither sex nor gender was the topic of that commencement speech. In fact, I can’t even remember the sex of the speaker. Thirty years from now, I want you to be able to recall more of this most important day in your life. I recall a line from one of the characters in "Liberty Heights", a movie by Barry Levinson. The character says: "If I knew I would forget so much, I would have tried harder to remember."

Try hard to remember this day, and the days that follow. Take notes.

But remembering is not enough. You will need to build a life filled with acts worth remembering, acts you can look back upon and cherish. In this time of unparalleled national wealth and unbridled self-interest, in this epoch of American dominance on the world stage, your generation will be remembered not for how it treats the wealthiest and most powerful, but for how it treats those most in need. It’s your stage.


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David Sadker

The Myra Sadker Foundation