Thank you to Acting PresidentChenette, my dearest friend and the person who invited me Gerry Laybourne, theboard, the faculty at Vassar, all of the proud parents that are here, ouralumnae and our alumni, and all the distinguished guests. And to the VassarClass of 2013 – many congratulations.
Vassar truly stands as a beaconof hope and opportunity that continues to inspire all of us. You have shown astrong sense of justice, community, and bold activism. Although I know there is always more work tobe done, you have shattered many glass ceilings here…women have always beenin leadership …you are advancing LGBT equality and acceptance, and you do havea campus that’s diverse in more ways than ever before!
The education that you receivehere at Vassar is a precious opportunity, one that tens of millions of youngpeople across the world are denied every single day due to poverty, violence,prejudice and injustice.
But I know that someday we canactually change that – with students like you leading the way. Students who stood up to the bigotry of theWestboro Baptist Church. You did not stand quietly by. You created a nationalconversation. You raised over $100,000, and you made your voice heard, inspiredaction in others, and produced real results.
My hope for this class is thatthis determined courage, this spirit of activism, this fierce opposition tohate will be the rule, not the exception.
So I’ve come here to ask youtoday, each and every one of you, just one question: How are you going to takethe lessons that you’ve learned here at Vassar, and carry on this legacy ofmaking a real difference?
I hope that each one of you findsthe opportunity to do public service, and truly have an impact on the lives ofso many others.
So I want to tell you all alittle bit about my own journey to public service. I was very lucky because Igrew up in a family that had a very strong role model. The role model was mygrandmother. She started her career as a young woman…she never went tocollege…she worked as a secretary in our state legislature in Albany.
She had this very bold idea thatwomen’s voices should be heard. There were very few women in elective office 75years ago. She wanted to have a say, and she wanted to have an impact.
And she knew somethinginstinctively that all of us know now, that to speak in one voice is veryimportant, but to speak along with many voices is far more powerful. She she asked all the women in thelegislature and all the women she knew in Upstate New York to get involved inpolitics.
Together they created anorganization of activism, where these women ran campaigns for about fiftyyears. They did all the door to door work, all the envelope stuffing, all thekinds of things it takes to win modern day campaigns. And that is why they were able to have avoice. They were able to elect peoplewho shared their values, who shared their concerns, and wanted to have the sameimpact on their community that they did.
So what that taught me as a younggirl watching her is that not only do women’s voices matter, but what you dowith your time matters. Grassrootsactivism matters. Fighting to make a difference matters.
After I went to college and lawschool, I saw myself working in New York City in a big law firm, and I watchedour First Lady, then Hilary Rodham Clinton, go to China.
Now if you remember, she went toChina in 1995, and she gave her historic speech on women’s rights. She said,“Let it be known that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights arehuman rights once and for all.
Now I was incredibly inspired byher at that moment because I’d been to Beijing, I had studied there, I hadlearned Mandarin, and I knew howpowerful it was for her as the First Lady to be giving that speech at that timein that place to that audience. They were still killing girl babies in thecountryside and I know that she was making a dramatic impact on the world atthat moment.
And I thought to myself, what amI doing with my life and am I making a difference? And I thought if I was goingto ever be with her at that conference in Beijing with her, I would have had tobe involved in politics. And that’s what spurred me to get off the sidelinesand focus on making a difference. And that’s when I engaged in politics.
So of course I followed in mygrandmother’s footsteps. I started working on campaigns. I started organizingother women and doing the tough work it takes to elect candidates. And the more I got involved, the more Irealized that I really love grassroots activism, and I decided I wanted toleave the law and do some form of public service.
I tried all sorts of ways to getthere, and my way wasn’t clear. First I tried the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I didnot get the job. Then I tried a bunch of charities in New York. I didn’t evenget an interview.
The Hillary Clinton decides torun for Senate, and I say, “This is my chance! I will get a job on her campaign.”I couldn’t get a paid position, so I couldn’t afford it.
So I went to a large event, andour then-secretary of housing and urban development, our now-governor AndrewCuomo, was giving a speech, a speech not unlike this about public service. And I went up to him afterwards and I said,“Well, Mr. Secretary, I’ve been trying to get into public service, and it’s notas easy as you say.”
Andrew being Andrew, our greatgovernor says, “Well, would you move to Washington?” And of course, determined,I said, “Yes, I will move to Washington.” Truth be told, I had no interest in ever moving to Washington. But, I did in fact take that opportunity, andI wound up going to Washington and serving as his special counsel.
Now, never in my life have Igotten out of bed as quickly as I did over those few months, because I lovedhelping others. And when theadministration lost the next election, there were no more jobs inWashington. And so I thought long andhard. And I said, “Could I run foroffice? Could I actually serve?” And over time, I said, “Why not?”
Why shouldn’t I serve? Why shouldn’t I make that jump? So I talked to a friend of mine who is apollster. His name is Jeffrey. He’s still my pollster. And I go to him and I say, “Jeffrey, couldyou just look up this district for me? I’m thinking of running in Upstate New York where I’m from.” And he looks it up, and he says, “Hmmm. That is a two-to-one Republicandistrict. You have no chance ofwinning.”
And I thought, really? No chance? “What happens if I run the perfect campaign? Can’t I win then?” He said, “No.” He said that there are more cows thanDemocrats in that district. I said,“Well, what happens if I raise two million dollars and really get my messageout?” He said, “No, Kirsten, I’msorry. You just can’t win.”
I said, “Well, what happens ifthis guy gets indicted? He’s a troublemaker. I could surely win then.” And he said, “Well, it depends what he getsindicted for.”
Well, the story goes, I did winthat election. And it was something thatno one thought was possible. In fact,even the New York Times called me a “dragon slayer” because it was such a toughdistrict to win.
So that taught me a few things.It taught me to always challenge conventional thinking. It taught me to think and dream big andcertainly never give up. And the truthis, there’s nothing too big for any one of you here to achieve. You just haveto believe in that dream, even if no one else but your mother believes in itwith you. Because you can go as far asyour vision will take you and as far as your hard work will take you.
So now you’ve heard the beginningof my story. I am far more interested in your story. I’d like to know what yourpath will be? What will you accomplish in your life? What will you set out tochange?
I challenge you to refuse toaccept that things can’t change simply because others tell you so. I hear thatexcuse every day in Washington, and it makes me even more determined to find away.
I am incredibly humbled to servein a Senate seat once occupied by giants in our American history: my mentor,friend and trailblazer Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the brilliantscholar-turned-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And, the iconic civil rightshero, Robert F. Kennedy.
RFK once quoted George BernardShaw and said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and askwhy? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
I love those words, and I thinkthey apply so much to all of us here today. There are those who look at all ofyou as Generation Y. I look at you and see Generation Y-Not.
Your generation is poised, likenone other in history, to challenge every single notion of equality, justiceand opportunity for all.
You have a history of saying “whynot!” here at Vassar. In 1861, the CivilWar was about to commence when Matthew Vassar asserted “why not create awomen’s institution for learning equal to men’s” — a thought that seemedabsolutely revolutionary, even dangerous to some, a dream that was fullyrealized here.
By 1969, Vassar College, in asign of its strength, made the decision to become a coeducational institution,rejecting an invitation to move to New Haven and join forces with Yale,declaring: “why not become a coeducational institution where strong women’svoices are heard and men who are comfortable with strong women’s voices areheard equal to them.”
Men like Bill Plapinger, yourboard chair from the class of 1974 sitting right here, the legendary class of1974 that led you to this important next stage. And Bill seems to have survivedthe experiment more or less.
So because of such groundbreakingleadership, we have actually achieved educational parity in this country. Morethan half of our college graduates and our advanced degrees are given to women.But the question is, how far have we come in reaching our goal of economic orpolitical parity for women.
Looking from my commencement in1988 to now, there were only two women in the Senate when I graduated. Todaythere are 20. There are only 18 percentwomen in the House of Representatives.
When I graduated from college,there were three women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Today there are 20–only4 percent.
Frankly, these numbers pathetic.So what are we missing? Is it leadership? Vision? A call to action?
This has prompted none other thanWarren Buffet to recently call on both men and women to address the imbalances– saying there is not just an ethical argument, but a very pragmatic one:everyone will benefit when we fully tap into the underutilized talents of halfour population.
And it’s true. When women serveon corporate boards, the return on investment and return on equity are higher
When there’s at least one womanon a corporate board, that company is 40 percent less likely to have to restatetheir earnings. I wonder why?
When women are at the table inWashington, there are a whole set of issues that are raised and very differentsolutions that are offered. There’soften much more common ground found and more consensus built, and it’s notsurprising that it took a woman as the chair of the personnel subcommittee onthe Armed Services Committee to hold the first hearing in ten years on sexualassault in the military.
Clearly, women’s equality is notjust about women. LGBT equality is not just about our LGBT community. Povertydoes not only impact the poor. Immigration reform is not just an issue forimmigrants.
When you approach the world withan eye towards justice, equality, and opportunity as core, common values,suddenly we start to look at something that is better for the greaterwhole. The whole becomes larger than thesum of its parts, and we become a stronger nation for it.
Fighting for women’s equality notonly challenges the status quo but compels the fundamental question, “Why notseek justice for all and opportunity for everyone?”
In the U.S. today, nearly 50million Americans are living below the poverty line, including one-in-fiveAmerican children, and more than a quarter of black and Hispaniccommunities. A third of householdsheaded by single women are below the poverty line. It’s unbelievable and unacceptable that thisis the world we’re in today.
Even as women are out-earning menin college degrees and advanced degrees, and are a growing share of primary householdearners – men still out-earn women in salary.
The key to a growing economy… thekey to a thriving middle class… the key to an America where every family has achance at the American Dream… is unleashing the potential of all of us,including women.
That’s why I’m fighting so hardin the Senate. In honor of today and in honor of this generation, we arecalling it our Why Not Agenda – it will equip anyone with an American Dreamwith the tools to reach it and guarantees that opportunity for all.
Why not increase the minimumwage?
Why not expand paid familymedical leave?
Why not provide universal pre-K?
Why not make quality affordabledaycare accessible?
Why not equal pay for equal work?
If we just paid a woman a dollaron the dollar for the exact same work, America’s GDP could grow by up to 9percent.
If we just took the time to raisethe minimum wage and get so many wage earners out of poverty, our GDP will growby another $30 billion in just three years, creating up to 100,000 new jobs.
When every woman has paid familyleave, 40,000 more new mothers will stay in their jobs and continue to advance their careersthroughout their lifetime.
You, as Vassar’s great heirs totheir revolutionary experiment, can realize this vision and turn this opportunityinto a bold, powerful reality.
Standing so close to where shemade her home, I am very inspired by the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said,“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which youreally stop and look at fear in the face….You must do the thing you think youcannot do.”
So I’m asking you to find it inyourselves not just to meet the demands of a new era, but to lead usthere. Lead us to new discoveries andnew ideas. Lead us to the dream that Vassar was founded on. And when met with a challenge of tired,outdated, status-quo thinking, it is my hope that you will not see the world asit is, but you will see it as it could, and should, be, and say, “Why not?”
Thank you, and congratulations!