Thank you to Acting PresidentChenette, my dearest friend and the person who invited meGerry 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 2019 – 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 knowthere is always more work tobe done, you have shattered many glass ceilings here...womenhave always beenin leadership …you are advancing LGBT equality and acceptance, and you dohavea campus that’s diverse in more ways than ever before!
The education that you receivehere at Vassar is a precious opportunity, one that tens ofmillions 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 theway. Students who stood up to the bigotry of theWestboro Baptist Church. You did not standquietly by. You created a nationalconversation. You raised over $100,000, and you made yourvoice heard, inspiredaction in others, and produced real results.
My hope for this class is thatthis determined courage, this spirit of activism, this fierceopposition 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 areyou going to takethe lessons that you’ve learned here at Vassar, and carry on this legacyofmaking a real difference?
I hope that each one of you findsthe opportunity to do public service, and truly have animpact 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 luckybecause Igrew up in a family that had a very strong role model. The role model wasmygrandmother. She started her career as a young woman…she never went tocollege…sheworked as a secretary in our state legislature in Albany.
She had this very bold idea thatwomen’s voices should be heard. There were very fewwomen in elective office 75years ago. She wanted to have a say, and she wanted to have animpact.
And she knew somethinginstinctively that all of us know now, that to speak in one voice isveryimportant, but to speak along with many voices is far more powerful. She she asked all thewomen in thelegislature and all the women she knew in Upstate New York to get involvedinpolitics.
Together they created anorganization of activism, where these women ran campaigns forabout fiftyyears. They did all the door to door work, all the envelope stuffing, all thekinds ofthings 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 wantedto 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 voicesmatter, but what you dowith your time matters. Grassrootsactivism matters. Fighting to make adifference matters.
After I went to college and lawschool, I saw myself working in New York City in a big lawfirm, 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 onwomen’s rights. She said,“Let it be known that human rights are women’s rights and women’srights arehuman rights once and for all.
Now I was incredibly inspired byher at that moment because I’d been to Beijing, I hadstudied there, I hadlearned Mandarin, and I knew howpowerful it was for her as the First Ladyto be giving that speech at that timein that place to that audience. They were still killing girlbabies in thecountryside and I know that she was making a dramatic impact on the worldatthat moment.
And I thought to myself, what amI doing with my life and am I making a difference? And Ithought if I was goingto ever be with her at that conference in Beijing with her, I would havehad tobe involved in politics. And that’s what spurred me to get off the sidelinesand focus onmaking a difference. And that’s when I engaged in politics.
So of course I followed in mygrandmother’s footsteps. I started working on campaigns. Istarted organizingother women and doing the tough work it takes to elect candidates. And themore I got involved, the more Irealized that I really love grassroots activism, and I decided Iwanted 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’tevenget an interview.
The Hillary Clinton decides torun for Senate, and I say, “This is my chance! I will get a jobon 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, ournow-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 intopublic service, and it’s notas easy as you say.”
Andrew being Andrew, our greatgovernor says, “Well, would you move to Washington?” Andof course, determined,I said, “Yes, I will move to Washington.” Truth be told, I had no interestin ever moving to Washington. But, I did in fact take that opportunity, andI wound up goingto 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 wereno more jobs inWashington. And so I thought long andhard. And I said, “Could I run foroffice?Could I actually serve?” And over t
Why shouldn’t I serve? Why shouldn’t I make that jump? So I talked to a friend of minewho 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 whereI’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 Iwin then?” He said, “No.” He said that there are more cows thanDemocrats in that district. Isaid,“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 surelywin 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 waspossible. In fact,even the New York Times called me a “dragon slayer” because it was such atoughdistrict 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’snothing too big for any one of you here to achieve. You just haveto believe in that dream, evenif no one else but your mother believes in itwith you. Because you can go as far asyour visionwill 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’dlike to know what yourpath will be? What will you accomplish in your life? What will you setout tochange?
I challenge you to refuse toaccept that things can’t change simply because others tell youso. I hear thatexcuse every day in Washington, and it makes me even more determined to findaway.
I am incredibly humbled to servein a Senate seat once occupied by giants in our Americanhistory: 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 theway 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 thosewho 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 ofequality, justiceand opportunity for all.
You have a history of saying “whynot!” here at Vassar. In 1861, the CivilWar was about tocommence when Matthew Vassar asserted “why not create awomen’s institution for learningequal to men’s” -- a thought that seemedabsolutely revolutionary, even dangerous to some, adream that was fullyrealized here.
By 1969, Vassar College, in asign of its strength, made the decision to become acoeducational institution,rejecting an invitation to move to New Haven and join forces withYale,declaring: “why not become a coeducational institution where strong women’svoices areheard 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, thelegendary class of1974 that led you to this important next stage. And Bill seems to havesurvivedthe experiment more or less.
So because of such groundbreakingleadership, we have actually achieved educational parityin this country. Morethan half of our college graduates and our advanced degrees are given towomen.But the question is, how far have we come in reaching our goal of economic orpoliticalparity for women.
Looking from my commencement in1988 to now, there were only two women in theSenate when I graduated. Todaythere are 20. There are only 18 percentwomen in the House ofRepresentatives.
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 toaction?
This has prompted none other thanWarren Buffet to recently call on both men and womento address the imbalances– saying there is not just an ethical argument, but a verypragmatic one:everyone will benefit when we fully tap into the underutilized talents ofhalfour population.
And it’s true. When women serveon corporate boards, the return on investment and returnon equity are higher
ime, I said, “Why not?”
When there’s at least one womanon a corporate board, that company is 40 percent lesslikely to have to restatetheir earnings. I wonder why?
When women are at the table inWashington, there are a whole set of issues that are raisedand very differentsolutions that are offered. There’soften much more common ground foundand more consensus built, and it’s notsurprising that it took a woman as the chair of thepersonnel subcommittee onthe Armed Services Committee to hold the first hearing in tenyears on sexualassault in the military.
Clearly, women’s equality is notjust about women. LGBT equality is not just about our LGBTcommunity. Povertydoes not only impact the poor. Immigration reform is not just an issueforimmigrants.
When you approach the world withan eye towards justice, equality, and opportunity ascore, common values,suddenly we start to look at something that is better for thegreaterwhole. The whole becomes larger than thesum of its parts, and we become a strongernation for it.
Fighting for women’s equality notonly challenges the status quo but compels thefundamental question, “Why notseek justice for all and opportunity for everyone?”
In the U.S. today, nearly 50million Americans are living below the poverty line, includingone-in-fiveAmerican children, and more than a quarter of black and Hispaniccommunities. Athird of householdsheaded by single women are below the poverty line. It’s unbelievable andunacceptable that thisis the world we’re in today.
Even as women are out-earning menin college degrees and advanced degrees, and are agrowing 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 Americawhere every family has achance at the American Dream… is unleashing the potential of all ofus,including women.
That’s why I’m fighting so hardin the Senate. In honor of today and in honor of thisgeneration, we arecalling it our Why Not Agenda – it will equip anyone with an AmericanDreamwith 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 couldgrow by up to 9percent.
If we just took the time to raisethe minimum wage and get so many wage earners out ofpoverty, our GDP will growby another $30 billion in just three years, creating up to 100,000new jobs.
When every woman has paid familyleave, 40,000 more new mothers will stay in their jobsand continue to advance their careersthroughout their lifetime.
You, as Vassar’s great heirs totheir revolutionary experiment, can realize this vision andturn this opportunityinto a bold, powerful reality.
Standing so close to where shemade her home, I am very inspired by the words of EleanorRoosevelt, who said,“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in whichyoureally 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 tolead usthere. Lead us to new discoveries andnew ideas. Lead us to the dream that Vassar wasfounded on. And when met with a challenge of tired,outdated, status-quo thinking, it is myhope that you will not see the world asit is, but you will see it as it could, and should, be, andsay, “Why not?”
Thank you, and congratulations!