Friday, May 12, 2017

15 famous commencement speeches by women speakers

(Editor's note: It's commencement time again, so we've updated this 2013 post since it first appeared with new additions to The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. If you're a woman commencement speaker, or the speechwriter for one, here's your inspiration.)

Cue the Pomp and Circumstance, it's that time of year again. Commencement is the start of something new, yes, but we're often stuck listening to the same old tired speeches in celebration. Can you remember your commencement speakers, or any memorable speakers at the graduations you've attended?

Admittedly, the commencement speech is a tough gig. Speakers want to be inspiring, and to avoid  cliches. They want to be broadly appealing to a diverse-age audience, but not so broadly appealing that every line they deliver has lost its bite. And they want to be memorable, but they're speaking at an event that rarely changes from year to year.

With all that in mind, we've compiled a list of commencement speakers from The Eloquent Woman Index who managed to meet these challenges, in ways that pleased the people who heard them live and that echoed long after the graduates shuffled off the stage.

1. Carol Bartz's 2012 commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin, Madison was full of plain speaking from the ex-CEO of Yahoo!, including jokes to bridge the gap between parents and students. She also decided to talk about the importance of failure--an unusual and memorable topic at an event held to celebrate success.

2. Viola Davis' 2012 speech at Providence College was full of the deep emotion and dramatic flair that you might expect from the Tony Award-winning actress. But a speech that included a scene from The Exorcist as a way to encourage graduates to find their authentic selves? Maybe not so expected.

3. Also in 2012, teacher and author Margaret Edson spoke beautifully at Smith College. Her speech, along with several other commencement speeches in the Index, used gentle humor to take the pomp out of the day's events. She also spoke without notes, allowing her to look out at her audience and establish a strong and instant rapport with them.

4. Nora Ephron's 1996 commencement address at Wellesley College is a terrific example of how humor and deft language can give new life to a standard speech. The journalist and screenwriter spoke directly about the year's top stories, from O.J. Simpson to Hillary Clinton. That's somewhat daring in a commencement speech, to be so topical when the occasion itself is so timeless. But I bet the graduates appreciated hearing where they fit into a moment in time.

5. and 6. Ursula K. Le Guin's commencement speeches at Mills College in 1983 and at Bryn Mawr in 1986 are some of the most poetic calls to action for women that you'll ever hear. The Bryn Mawr speech, in particular, has been considered among the 10 most memorable commencement speeches.

7. Before "lean in" became a buzzword and a best-selling book, Sheryl Sandberg was exploring the idea in a 2011 commencement speech at Barnard CollegeThe Facebook COO was especially good at reaching out to today's mixed audience of graduates, speaking not just to the obstacles facing women in their 20s, but also those facing women earning their mid-life degrees.

8. When Maria Shriver spoke at the 2012 University of California Annenberg School graduation, she urged students to consider "the power of the pause." Like Carol Bartz, she chose a topic that was memorable because it strayed away from the usual gung-ho, march-to-the-future rhetoric that graduates are accustomed to hearing.

9. Public speaking, including an earlier commencement speech, created lots of trouble for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who shared her experiences at Harvard's commencement. She stirred all that trouble into inspiring lines like, "If you dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

10. Also from Liberia, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee told Barnard graduates in 2013 that, before they could lean in, they needed to "step out of the shadows" instead of following the self-effacing, supporting role so many women adopt.

11. Arianna Huffington's "Thrive" speech, given in 2013 at Smith College, shared the story of how sleep deprivation caused her to have a serious accident. It's a moment that has shaped her latest business venture.

12. Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson's "to anyone who's been dumped" commencement speech in 2014 drew on her experience--right before the speech--of getting fired from a high-profile post.

13. IBM chair, president, and CEO Ginni Rometty's 2015 Northwestern University commencement speech was what every commencement speaker should aim for: structured, relevant, and able to move calmly past a verbal flub.

14. First Lady Michelle Obama's 2016 commencement address at Tuskegee University looked at racism in history and today, from a personal perspective--and was slammed by accusations of "reverse racism."

15. Hillary Clinton's 1969 commencement speech was delivered as a rare student speaker. She used the opportunity to criticize the distinguished guest speaker, and then to rally her fellow graduates in a speech that made national waves, even then.

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post.)

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