When the White House announced that Barack Obama would deliver Barnard College’s graduation speech in New York City on May 14, many were puzzled. Why would the President ignore his own alma mater, Columbia, to focus on Barnard, its all-woman sister institution across the street on Broadway? Pundits concluded he was trying to shore up his popularity with his female base for the 2012 election.
And they were right, judging by the shrieks, applause and delighted chants of “Yes We Can!” by Barnard’s 594 newly minted graduates.
“Today, women are not just half the country, you’re half its workforce,” Obama told the cheering crowd. “More and more women are out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates and master’s graduates and Ph.D.s. So you’ve got us outnumbered!”
Throughout his speech, Obama emphasized that women of all colors and backgrounds were, increasingly, a force to be reckoned with. He cited the example of a daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants.
“When she was in high school,” he said, “her guidance counselor told her, ‘You know what? You’re just not college material. You should think about becoming a secretary.’ Well, she was stubborn, so she went to college anyway. She got her master’s. She ran for local office, won. She ran for state office, she won. She ran for Congress, she won. And lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary—she is America’s Secretary of Labor!”
Alluding to hard economic times and historical discrimination, Obama sounded a word of caution: “You’re going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health.”
But on the whole, Obama’s female-oriented message was upbeat and personal. He spoke of his mother, “who ended up dedicating herself to helping women around the world access the money they needed to start their own businesses—she was an early pioneer in microfinance. And that meant, though, that she was gone a lot, and she had her own struggles trying to figure out balancing motherhood and a career. And when she was gone, my grandmother stepped up to take care of me.
“She only had a high school education,” he continued. “She got a job at a local bank. She hit the glass ceiling, and watched men she once trained promoted up the ladder ahead of her. But she didn’t quit.
“And later on,” he concluded to laughter and applause, “I met a woman who was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm—and she gave me such good advice that I married her!”