Diana Selig, the Kingsley Croul Associate Professor of History and George R. Roberts Fellow, was the keynote speaker at Convocation. Here is a transcript of her remarks.
It’s an honor to be addressing you all here today. Greetings to my fellow faculty members, especially to those of you recognized for your years of service. To the staff members here, also, to those of you recognized for your service. To returning students, and most of all, to new students who have recently arrived on campus, to transfer students and to members of the class of 2020. I’m sure I won’t be the last to comment that we expect great clarity of vision from the class of 2020.
My task today, as I understand it, is to offer some words of wisdom to new students as you embark on your college careers. This is no easy charge, especially given the state of the world today. News reports have been filled with stories of deadly violence and of conflict and tragedy, of divisiveness and extremism at home and abroad. What can I say to you in the midst of what seems like a dark and difficult time?
Luckily for me, I’m a historian and we historians have an advantage. We can look to the past for inspiration and ideas and, indeed, in my own research I have been reading words of counsel offered to another class of ’20. That is the class of 1920. CMC, of course, had not yet been founded at that point and far fewer students went to college than today, so these were hopes for the generation in general that was born around the turn of the 20th century and that came of age 100 years ago. So for this talk I thought I might borrow from that conversation and see how relevant it might be for us today.
Let me take you back to that time when the class of 1920 came of age. That, too, was a period of global disruption. Overseas, the country had recently taken part in a global world war that had caused the deaths of 20 million people around the globe. At home, violence and segregation restricted the lives of African-Americans. Anti-immigrant sentiment was growing, targeting Catholics and Jews, Asians and Mexicans, in particular, and new economic trends were leading to an increasing disparity of wealth. Race riots, the collapse of the economic boom and a post-war Red scare reflected a climate of conflict and social unrest.
But, as you will recall, 1920 also brought the greatest expansion of democracy in American history. To what am I referring? With the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, American women finally won the right to vote. As you may remember from your high school history classes, the movement for the vote had lasted for over 70 years, since the first public proclamation in the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Over the course of many decades, hundreds of thousands of women and men, black and white, affluent and working class, had taken part in an organized campaign that involved meetings and speeches and lobbying and, later, marches and civil disobedience all to demand the equal franchise. The suffragettes finally persuaded Congress to approve the women’s suffrage amendment by a close vote, I should add, in 1919. And by August of 1920, three-quarters of the states ratified the new amendment, the last Tennessee, again by a close vote, in time for the election in November.
Now, of course, even with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the expansion of democracy was still incomplete and it’s important to note that immigrants from Asia, along with many Native Americans, had no chance to cast a ballot until the reform of naturalization and citizenship laws after World War II.
African-Americans in the South, women and men, remained largely disfranchised in practice until the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and young Americans of both sexes only gained the vote in 1971 with the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.
But despite these limitations, women’s suffrage was a tremendous achievement. With that victory the electorate doubled, bringing millions of new voters to the polls. The 19th Amendment affirmed that women, like men, were autonomous political beings who deserved all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Now, as you can imagine, this transformation of a polity generated much discussion. As in earlier periods, many observers focused on the role of education in creating a strong and informed citizenry. How could education prepare young people, men and women, to participate fully and responsibly in the democratic process? How could it encourage civic commitment and engage citizenship among all Americans?
In my own research I’ve been examining the ways that former suffragists, in particular, came to answer these questions. These were activists who had spent the first part of their adult lives educating for suffrage and the second half advocating for further reforms. They did not see suffrage as their final goal. They saw it, rather, as one important step in a broader struggle for political, social and economic advancement, and after suffrage many of them turned their attention to educating a new generation. So what hopes did these former suffragists express for the young people who were coming of age around 1920?
I would like to discuss three areas that they considered critical. First, these former suffragists wanted young people to know their history. They worried that young people would forget the struggles and the sacrifices of those who had come before. I thought about this over the summer while I was watching the movie Mary Poppins with my kids for the zillionth time. Some of you, and I’m guessing that at least a few of you, have seen this movie more than once. Some of you might remember that in the 1964 Walt Disney classic, Mrs. Winifred Banks, the fictional British crusader for women’s votes, predicts joyfully in song, “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and they’ll sing in grateful chorus. Well done, sister suffragettes!”
But in fact real life activists were far less optimistic about the gratitude of future generations. Susan B. Anthony, one of the great leaders of the Suffrage Movement had recognized just how quickly gains could be taken for granted.
In 1894, near the end of her life and still 26 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, she wrote, “We shall some day be heeded and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so just exactly as many young people think that all the privileges, all the freedoms, all the enjoyment which women now possesses always were hers. They have no idea how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.”
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, other suffragists expressed similar concern and they worried that a new generation would take for granted the right to vote, forgetting the difficulties that several generations had endured, the ridicule and harassment they had suffered, the years they had devoted to organization and protest. In response, former suffragists designed school programs and wrote curricula and textbooks that depicted women, along with men, as makers of history.
To you today, I would offer similar encouragement. Learn history. And I don’t just mean the history of the women’s Suffrage Movement, although as you can tell, I find that story fascinating. And I don’t just mean the history of the United States, although I do think that history is critical for American citizenship and for life in the United States. And I don’t just mean history as taught in my own quite wonderful department. I mean history in a broader sense, as encountered in various disciplines and contexts—in science, in literature, in economics, in religious studies. History reminds us of the humanity of the people of the past who thought and acted in ways perhaps unfamiliar to us.
Encountering their perspectives requires imagination and empathy. In the process we gain compassion for people today who hold views and who live lives very different from our own and we deepen our understanding of the wide range of human experiences across societies and cultures. At the same time, we come to see that we, too, are shaped by our time and place, by the world into which we are born. And so we gain compassion for ourselves, for our achievements and for our own inevitable failings.
The second hope of former suffragists was for young people, women and men, to seek an education that would grant them the learning and the skills they would need for active and engage citizenship. They wanted education to be personally meaningful, broadly inclusive, connected to the wider world. And to you today, I would emphasize the great good that can come from an education that is meaningful and inclusive and engaged.
A liberal arts education, which is what you can gain here at CMC, can help you to understand the world and your place in it more clearly. Each of the academic disciplines that we teach at the college, from philosophy to modern languages, from chemistry to international relations, can extend your capacity to learn and can develop your skills in research and analysis, in reading and writing and speaking, in grappling with difficult problems and articulating complex ideas.
Each discipline can inform and enlighten you, can help you to become a reflective human being. And this, of course, is the purpose of the general education requirements and a liberal arts education more generally, to expose you to new ways of seeing the world. You might surprise yourself and find interests and talents that you never knew you had.
So, like earlier activists, I encourage you to lay claim to your own learning, to engage in inquiry and debate, to try on new arguments and opinions. You will meet people here who have views unlike yours and who challenge your preconceived notions and conventions. Stay curious, stay brave and open-minded as you listen to the new ideas that you encounter. This is the intellectual journey of college and all of us make up an intellectual community, embarking together on an effort to understand, to reflect and consider, to ask and answer questions and to see what questions remain.
The third goal of the former suffragists was for young people to stay active in the world and this was the heart of their effort. They cared so deeply about remembering the past and about cultivating learning for the present because they viewed these aims as essential for effective civic life and political engagement.
And, indeed, after the achievement of suffrage, much work remained to be done. Former suffragists organized to extend suffrage further, to abolish the poll tax, to allow citizenship for immigrants, to support suffrage movements around the world, and over the course of decades activists from many backgrounds continued to fight for women’s advancement, to protect women’s right to work, to earn equal wages, to control their earnings, to seek higher education, and to enter the professions, even academia, even to become college professors.
They worked to reform marriage laws to allow divorce when necessary and to grant women custody of their children. They urged women to participate in the political system and to run for political office, maybe even for the presidency.
Through the persistent efforts of many women and men, through persuasion and argument over the course of many years, they pursued these visions. And to you today, I would echo this call. Much work remains to be done. Our country and our world need you. We need your intellectual capacities and your aspirations in order to address the pressing issues that confront us. We need your sharpness of mind and your generosity of heart.
The issues that we face today reflect both similarities and differences with the past. As a nation, we continue to strive to live up to the promise of equality, to recognize difference while building shared purpose and community. We still grapple with how to welcome immigrants and refugees, how to prevent violence against people of color, how to address structural inequities and disparities of wealth and poverty, how to attain equality for women and men.
In the past few generations new ideas and new voices have emerged as well. For example, activists today strive for LGBTQ civil rights, a topic that was not on the reform agenda a century ago, when the concepts of gay and trans identity had not yet been fully articulated. We are today far more attentive than we were in the past to such characteristics as learning differences in multi-racial identities and we embrace a broader range of religious and cultural backgrounds.
At CMC, as elsewhere, we welcome first generation students and international students. We value differences of sexual orientation and political perspectives, physical ability and gender expression. We strive to create a welcome and open and inclusive community, a dynamic place in which each of us can flourish, can participate fully, can contribute to each other’s learning and growth. The specifics may have changed from those of the suffragist day, but the broader goals of inclusion and respect endure.
This inclusion and respect is not in luxury. It is essential to our educational mission. The problems facing the world today are so complex and interconnected that none of us can solve them on our own. We need each other in order to create the kind of rich and vibrant community that fosters intellectual curiosity and collaboration and creative thinking. Only by working together, by drawing on each other’s perspectives and capacities, can we gain the depth of understanding we need to be able to work thoughtfully and constructively to build the world we might imagine.
In addition to knowledge and understanding, you will need inspiration for the work ahead. Inspiration can come from many places. You might not be surprised to learn that I find it in the past. Looking to the past reminds us that we can move forward towards our goals even if progress is slow.
Here’s an example from the Suffrage Movement. One woman who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, just one woman, lived long enough to see the day when women could vote across the nation. Charlotte Woodward was her name. She was 18 when she traveled to Seneca Falls to attend the Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 and she was 90 years old in 1920, when the Suffrage Amendment finally passed.
Here’s another example, also linked to the suffrage story. This summer we learned about a woman named “Jerry” Emmett, who was born before the passage of the 19th Amendment and who, at age 102, took part in the first major party convention that nominated a woman for president. We are only two lifetimes away from Seneca Falls.
These stories also inspire us because they remind us that events in the past were not certain and inevitable. As Susan B. Anthony recognized, the world was not always so, but rather, as she said, “The ground we stand upon today was gained by the actions of real people in the past.” This leads us to a simple but powerful insight: our decisions today will shape the course of events. Just as we build on the work of those who came before us, we shape the world for those who come after us. We make history. We have the power and the responsibility to move toward the realization of our ideals. In the end, this is what the former suffragists hoped for a hundred years ago, for all of us to engage fully, to participate thoughtfully, to make and remake the world.