The Commencement page says "At the age of 37, Baldwin became both the first woman and the first non-incumbent, openly gay person to be elected to represent her state [Wisconsin] in Congress. She was re-elected to her sixth term in 2008 and currently serves in the 111th Congress."
I read her address online.
Near the beginning she says:
My bio says I won my first campaign for public office when I was 24 years old. But my classmates always remind me that’s not completely true. My first campaign was right here at Smith when I ran for president of my house. I felt confident. I had passionately followed politics for years. And, not only was it my house, it was called Baldwin House.Aww.
Needless to say, I lost. But, I learned my lesson. I’ve never run another campaign against a Smithie. And I’ve never lost another election.
Okay, I'm excerpting most of the remainder of her speech.
One of my favorite professors was Jim Henle. My first class with him was “infinitesimal calculus.” I was a math major and a pretty sharp student. In his class he did something that took me completely by surprise.***
He assigned us “insoluble problems” -- problems with no solutions -- as homework. We weren’t expected to come up with the answers. But we were expected to show some progress.
Professor Henle’s point was that by pushing against the boundaries of what we knew, we could expand those boundaries. Of course, in the back of our heads, a lot of us had another thought: that every problem starts out as insoluble. Then somebody goes and cracks it.
I never figured out any of the problems. There’s a reason I became a politician and not a mathematician. But as my career has progressed, I’ve thought back to that class many times.
Far too often, our greatest challenges are portrayed as insoluble problems. And our reaction is to throw up our hands, say “oh well,” and go on to the next challenge. But history teaches us that even our biggest problems have solutions. How do you calculate the area of a circle? How do you build a computer for less than a million dollars? How do you govern without a King... or Queen? All insoluble problems -- or so they seemed.
So today, I have an assignment for you. No matter what you do in the years to come, devote part of your time to working on what looks right now to be an insoluble problem. It will be challenging. It will be frustrating. You may not see any progress for many years. But it may also be the greatest contribution to the world you ever make.
Before this gets too abstract, let me give a very personal example. A problem that has long seemed insoluble is the denial of equal rights to millions of gay and lesbian people all around the world.
I came out when I was 21 years old -- first to myself, then to my closest friends. The world was a lot different back then. So was Smith. I still have a yearbook in which there is a photograph of the Smith College Lesbian Alliance. The photo was intentionally blurred by the students so that you couldn’t make out their faces. Even at Smith, in that era, they didn’t want anyone to know who they were. But they did want everyone to know that they existed.
I can tell you about that fear. The fear of consequences -- in class, at home, and on the job -- that fear influenced their decision to blur the photo. Back then, I didn’t know much about the gay rights movement. There weren’t many gay or lesbian role models. I had to go find them. So I started reading about Stonewall, Elaine Noble and Harvey Milk. I discovered a history of courageous people who took huge risks to gain a few more rights or change a few minds. Some were on this campus. I also discovered a history of violence, discrimination, and injustice.
When I graduated, I thought I might have to make a choice.... Between pursuing a career of my dreams or being honest about who I am. Between public service or being myself in public.
I decided I had to take my own risk. So I did one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I gave an interview to my local newspaper. And I told them I was a lesbian.
That spring, I was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors -- anyway. In that same year, I attended an international conference for gay and lesbian officeholders. There were 14 of us. They could get away with calling it “international” because one Member of the British Parliament attended. That was it. And it wasn’t clear to any of us that our numbers were going to grow.
Today it looks like we have reached a tipping point. That conference I attended is in its 25th year. Last year it was sponsored by Prudential and Pacific Gas and Electric. More than 800 officials were invited. Here in Massachusetts, some same sex couples are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversaries. And three weeks ago, I led the House in passing the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act.
How did we get from there to here? There’s no easy-to-follow chain of causes-and-effects. It took protests, marches, vigils, late night conversations over the kitchen table. It took brave young gay people coming out to their families. It took brave young straight people standing up for their friends. It took brave old people changing their minds. It took religious arguments, political arguments, biological arguments, philosophical arguments. It took running for office and filing lawsuits and lobbying government and walking down the street holding hands. It took all this and much more.
I don’t want to dwell on history. What I want to stress to you is that there was no “eureka” moment. There was no elegant proof or simple formula. It took the constant application of pressure by people who usually couldn’t even tell whether they were making a difference. This is what it means to work on an insoluble problem.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He used it in many speeches, but the most famous time was in his speech in Montgomery after the march from Selma.
Remember this was the third attempt to march. The first time, they were attacked by the police with clubs and tear gas and had to turn back. The second time, they were stopped by a judge’s order. The third time, they finally made it all 54 miles to Montgomery where Dr. King gave his speech.
However, all they had accomplished was getting to Montgomery. They hadn’t changed any laws. They hadn’t gotten any concessions. Jim Crow was still the law of the land.
Today, we remember the march from Selma as a key turning point in the civil rights struggle. This is how progress happens. You push and push and push until you can’t push any more. Sometimes you are beaten back. But in the end, that arc bends just slightly and the world is a better place.
Many of you know this history. I raise it today because it is easy to forget that in the history books, we always know how the story ends. Real life is different. We can’t see that far ahead. We don’t know what the future brings.
It becomes easy to focus on problems that have clear cut solutions. How do I get this job? How do I get this apartment? How do I pass this bill? Avoiding the insoluble problems means saying that at best, we can do only a little bit better. What a tragic pronouncement!
I heart fandom. Someone linked to the NYT article "Dear Donna: A Pinup So Swell She Kept G.I. Mail", commenting, "I can't recommend this story highly enough. Both because it is Memorial Day, but also because it offers a really unique window on (and starting point for discussion about) fan/celebrity interaction."