Rachel Maddow Inspires Smith Graduates: “Do Not For the Fame, But For the Glory”
May 17, 2010
[caption id="attachment_7860" align="alignright" width="414" caption="Rachel Maddow at Smith. Credit: Jim Gipe/pivotmedia.com "][/caption] Guest post by Progressive Women's Voices alumna Ileana Jimenez It all started with a gift of safety goggles smartly covered in Periodic Table of Elements wrapping paper. Associate Professor of Chemistry Betsy Jamieson’s thank you to Rachel Maddow for delivering this year’s Commencement speech at Smith College gestured towards Maddow’s reverence of everything geek. They were a fitting gift for our favorite geek from the Happy Valley by way of the Silicon Valley. The second gift was an honorary degree conferred by Smith President Carol Christ. Welcome to Smith, Rachel Maddow, you are one of us now. “She really loved the periodic table wrapping paper. [At a dinner in her honor] she showed off the Smith Democrats’ chapstick the students had given her. She made a comment that the Republicans would have given out lipstick,” Jamieson said. Amid bagpipes, professorial regalia, student activists handing out fliers reading “Support Smith Women Workers Now,” and student primal screams, Maddow swept the class of 2010, their families, and returning alumnae off their feet, even in all her humility. “You are too smart to take advice from anyone who hasn’t earned it, let alone an erstwhile Northampton morning radio show DJ,” she said to an audience of 733 Smith graduates, alluding to her early media days in western Massachusetts. Just moments before Maddow marched into Smith’s sun-splashed Quad with faculty and trustees, I spoke to Maddow about her thoughts on speaking at a women’s college whose mission is proudly feminist. “I do feel that the core of the feminist experience is that women are expected to be full people independent of their gender, and that it really is about having the same high expectations of everybody in this kind of an environment,” she said. “I think the idea that nobody gets cut any slack because of who they are is just as liberal and feminist as the idea that everybody needs special dispensation. You better be a badass no matter what you’re doing.” Stories of badasses, both the positive and negative kind, were at the core of Maddow’s speech, which was part cautionary tale and part inspiring mantra. She told the story of Carry Nation, a woman whose zealous mission to stamp out alcohol was part of the same temperance movement that led to Prohibition-era policies and the corruption and bad governmental behavior that came along with it. Maddow used Nation’s story of “lustily destroying” saloons with rocks and hatchets as a way to say that while Prohibition was a “huge disaster for our nation, it was a personal triumph for Carry Nation.” For Maddow, though, Nation’s is not a personal triumph to emulate. She even warned that “personal triumphs are overrated,” especially if they are in the name of personal gain that in the end will not be good for anyone. Maddow didn’t shy away from providing evidence of leaders both past and present who she thought could have taken a more dignified route in their decision-making, and yet who others might think of as commendable. [caption id="attachment_7861" align="alignleft" width="445" caption="Ileana Jimenez with Rachel Maddow. Credit: Jim Gipe/pivotmedia.com "][/caption] “When our current President hit upon the strategy of co-opting his political opponents’ wish list in order to get a climate bill passed this year, [his] adopting ‘drill baby drill’ was lauded in the Beltway press as a personal triumph for him.” When Maddow included Jack Abramoff and Al Capone on her list, her message about staying on the right and true course was clear: “All of these people dreamed their dreams and worked hard and achieved their dreams. [But] some dreams are bad dreams.” So what’s a Smith graduate with dreams to do? “Get smart and get smart fast. Take the opportunities that you have very seriously. Continue your education . . . not necessarily in a grad school way but in a lifelong way. Be intellectually and morally rigorous in your decision-making and expect that the important people in your life do the same if they want to stay important to you.” “[Take] as your baseline that you will not seek to reach your own goals by stepping on the neck of your community. It means recognizing that thinking big means thinking of your country as your community. It means coming to terms with the fact that your country needs you Smith Class of 2010.” “There will come times in life and career ahead when you have to choose between integrity and more short term temptations . . . when given a choice between fame and glory, pick glory.” Senior class president, Katherine Clark, was glad that Maddow “in true Smithie style, was supportive of doing what you like and not what’s best for your pocket.” Recent alumna, Jocelyn Thomas from the class of 2008, said, “It was a politically poignant speech without being overly polemical. Knowing the people that I do in the class of 2010, I thought it was a good message for them, because these graduates are truly dedicated to the service that Maddow called for and hailed to them to stay dedicated to.” Jamieson, who is also an alumna from the class of 1994, said, “It reminded me of Sophia Smith’s goal in founding the College ‘that by the education of women . . . their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.’” As a Smith alumna from the class of 1997 and as an educator who considers her work in secondary classrooms to be a form of activism for social justice and equity, I too was moved by Maddow’s call for greater integrity and greater responsibility both to ourselves as women and our communities as leaders. Throughout the speech, I was reminded of Maddow’s 2009 visit to the school where I teach, where she stated at the time, “The fight in your life will find you.” As graduate Grace Livingston declared, “It was phenomenal, she’s well-versed, intelligent, and smart. She’s everything a Smithie would be.” Geek approved, indeed.