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Rites of Passage: The President, Barnard and Me

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When it was announced this past March that President Obama would be the 2012 commencement speaker at Barnard College on May 14, the reaction among alumnae was one of thrilled incredulity. Forget Oprah’s Favorite Things Christmas give-away show; a ticket to Barnard Commencement 2012 had become the most coveted ticket, on or off television. So, about a month later, when I received an invitation from my alma mater to be a guest at the historical commencement, I felt like I did when I was 8-years-old with tickets to see the Jackson 5 for the first time. I was filled with excitement. And also with pride, gratitude and reflection.

Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was the speaker at my Barnard Commencement in 1985. Graduation day was also my 21st birthday, so every word Edelman uttered I perceived was meant just for me and the potential for my official adult life, post-Barnard. It was an out-of-body experience for me. “Aim high,” Edelman encouraged us. A lot of adult life has transpired for me twenty-seven years since. So on the eve of my 48th birthday, as I sat on Columbia University’s south lawn witnessing the President of the United States in the flesh and listening to him encourage the 500-plus women in Barnard’s 2012 graduating class to persevere, I felt that he, too, was speaking to me.

But I sense that President Obama’s resonance with women is more than political, despite the fact that Barnard President Debora Spar cited a litany of his unprecedented accomplishments over the last four years, many of which (signing the Lilly Ledbetter “equal pay for equal work” Act, upholding women’s right to control her own body and health choices, and appointing a significant number of women to leadership positions in his administration, to name a few) sound the right political note for us. On the contrary, his resonance with women is very personal. This is a man who is not ashamed of, resentful of, or threatened by, the influence women have had on him. He acknowledged that his own perseverance comes from “watching the women who shaped [his] life.” In addition to his mother’s example, the President remarked that “Malia and Sasha will become outstanding women because Michelle and (his mother-in-law) Marian Robinson are outstanding women.” And while President Obama suggested to grads that they not be overly concerned with the media’s emphasis on beauty and fashion, he also admitted that “Michelle would say ‘you can be stylish and powerful, too.’”  White House Correspondents Association President Caren Bohan symbolically acknowledged this woman power when she broke protocol and included Michelle Obama in her toast to the President at the Correspondents dinner last month. It was a rare recognition of a First Lady’s – a woman’s – contribution to a President’s power and influence. It’s this assignation of credit where credit is due that tells me President Obama, above and beyond political expediency, actually means what he says when he talks about, and to, women.

When he kicked off his 2012 campaign earlier this month, the President told a gymnasium full of supporters, “I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons." Yesterday, when I looked across the aisle at the excitement and determination on the faces of the diverse gathering young women in their caps and gowns, I gave thanks that they, like me, are daughters who did have the same educational opportunity as many sons. We are all proverbial Barnard women, whom the President described as having a “defiant, can-do spirit.”  When I consider the difficult political climate he is dealing with,  as well as my own life experience and the challenges women still face, that defiant spirit wanes momentarily for the graduates, myself, and all the women voters – particularly women of color – whose votes were pivotal to the President’s election in 2008. The rain and grey skies of this historic 2012 commencement day threatened to become a metaphor in my mind that women’s best efforts might not be enough in this pivotal election year. That moment quickly passed. “Fight for your seat at the table,” President Obama said. “Fight for your seat at the head of the table. It’s up to you to hold the system accountable, sometimes to upend it entirely.” I know he was speaking to the twenty-something women with the 2012 tassels, but, like Marian Wright Edelman did at Barnard in 1985, I knew he was also speaking to me, to all of us.


Sharon D. Johnson is a writer and alumna of Barnard College class of 1985.  She recently earned her PhD in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and will celebrate her commencement May 26.
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