In 1990, then-First Lady Barbara Bush delivered the commencement address at the esteemed Wellesley College, a private women’s liberal arts college located west of Boston in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
It’s a stunning campus in an idyllic location and its focus is to offer a superlative educational experience as it helps empower women. Founded in 1870, the Wellesley motto is ‘Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.’ A perfect venue for the First Lady of the United States to deliver a speech to a class of brilliant, independent young women. Or not. There was a huge controversy surrounding the anticipated commencement address.
But there’s a surprise ending.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Wellesley College: ‘Not to be Ministered Unto, But to Minister’
Wellesley College is one of the One of the ‘Seven Sisters,’ historically women’s liberal arts colleges in the northeast, Barnard College, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College, Vassar College and Radcliffe, the latter two co-educational. All seven were founded in the mid to late 19th century.
Notable alumni include Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Wellesley College describes itself as “one of the most prestigious and highly respected institutions of higher education in the country and widely acknowledged as the nation’s top college for women, provides its 2300 students with opportunities that prepare them to realize their own highest ambitions and compete in any setting.”
In the spring of 1990, the senior class voted and chose Alice Walker, author of ‘The Color Purple,’ to be their commencement speaker. Their second choice was First Lady Barbara Bush. Walker declined and so it would be Mrs. Bush delivering the commencement address for the Class of 1990. At the time, her husband, George H. W. Bush, was the 41st President of the United States. Wellesley is a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, a Ivy League-ish school in a blue state. And many young women there were not only unhappy about the politics involved, there was another problem.
2. Their Second Choice, Some Wellesley Seniors Were Vehemently Opposed to First Lady Barbara Bush as Commencement Speaker
The New York Times reported in 1990 that 150 Wellesley students presented to the then-college president Dr. Keohane a petition that read: “Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”
But it was perhaps more symbol than call to action; the petition did not demand Bush be uninvited, in fact, the senior class voted and the First Lady was their second choice.
Mrs. Bush sat with reporters before the graduation and, the Times reported the First Lady said she understood where the students were coming from adding they ”were very reasonable.” But, said, ”they’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective. I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at …’I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”
3. The First Lady’s Speech Made History, or Herstory
In 1990, Eleanor Clift wrote in Newsweek that Bush was not “defensive about her college-dropout, career-housewife resume.” But what she did do in the speech was suggest that whatever a woman chose to do, emphasis on her choice, was empowering. Even if that meant dropping out of school to marry and support a husband, and later an American dynasty, in politics and public service.
Wellesley has this ritual where students race while rolling a wooden hoop. The winner, way, way back in the day, was the first of the class to get married. In 1990, the winner would be the first CEO.
Mrs. Bush said,“Both of those stereotypes show too little tolerance …So I want to offer you today a new legend: The winner of the hoop race will be the first to realize her dream … not society’s dreams … her own personal dream.”
The First Lady told the graduates, many who were opposed to her speaking at all, that the “first-class education from a first-class school” meant they’d have choices and not be forced to live a “paint-by-numbers” life.
“Decisions are not irrevocable. Choices do come back,” she said.
Mrs. Bush recommended grads do three things: “… to believe in something larger than yourself,” to make sure to live life, have joy and fun, and third, to maintain “human connections.” Here she was speaking about mostly powerful love found in family: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
The speech takes a sharp turn then. And she comes to her point.
4. When First Lady Barbara Bush Brings the Down the House, & a Partially Hostile House at That
In her speech Mrs. Bush switches gears a bit and talks traditional family values. Sort of.
“We are in a transitional period right now … fascinating and exhilarating times … learning to adjust to the changes and the choices we … men and women … are facing. As an example, I remember what a friend said, on hearing her husband complain to his buddies that he had to babysit. Quickly setting him straight, my friend told her husband that when it’s your own kids, it’s not called babysitting!
“Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower. But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children — they must come first.
“You must read to your children, hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family … our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”
And at this point, there may have been some eye-rolling but she will soon have people in tears and roaring with laughter. Remember the race with the hoop? How she says the winner “will be the first to realize her dream … not society’s dreams … her own personal dream,” recall?
“And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President’s spouse. I wish him well!”
5. ‘A Job Wellesley Done’ By Barbara Bush & Raisa Gorbachev
Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, also spoke at Wellesley that June day in 1990.
“We women have our special mission. Always, even in the most cruel and troubled times, women have had the mission of peacemaking, humanism. mercy, and kindness. And if people in the world today are more confident of a peaceful future, we have to give a great deal of credit for that to women, who are active in advocating friendship, cooperation, and mutual understanding among nations,” Gorbachev said.
“The President of the Soviet Union asked me to convey to you his warm regards. He also wishes you happy roads in your life. We know that people in America show great interest in what is happening in the Soviet Union, the land of perestroika. This word nowadays sounds the same in all the languages of the world. We associate with perestroika the future of our country, whose millions of people speak over 120 languages. Perestroika was conceived and is being implemented for the sake of the people, their dignity, and quality. Its goal is to make humane ideals and values a reality. This vast and difficult task is a top challenge, but we are confident that perestroika will succeed. The guarantee of that is the patriotism and talent of our people, their tenacity, their strength, and their desire to overcome obstacles on the way, on the road they chose.”
Hard to picture now almost three decades later
“Their husbands had the easy job. Putting the cold war to bed is nothing compared with negotiating the conflicts of modern-day feminism. But Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbacheva did some disarming of their own in a joint commencement speech at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The First Ladies were models of diplomacy. They clasped hands and shared the stage like partners in perestroika,” said Clift.
While this was not the first time the First Lady delivered the same speech, what happened at Wellesley was an achievement her staff said at the time. As did the media. “One of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard,” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said. When the First Lady returned to the White House her staff had a banner that read, ‘A Job Wellesley Done.’