Commencement 2007 Address by Dr. Carole Levin

May 20, 2007

What Does a Woman Really Want?
Commencement 2007
Mary Baldwin University
Dr. Carole Levin

It is a great honor to be here. I have long admired the mission of Mary Baldwin University, that it was begun as a woman’s college in the mid-19th century when many ridiculed or ignored the idea that women could be great achievers in terms of education. How excellent, that today, Mary Baldwin still values the idea of a residential college for women where learning and student achievement are at the center of the enterprise, while at the same time offering the Mary Baldwin education to adult learners in a coeducational undergraduate program, post-baccalaureate teacher licensure, and two outstanding graduate programs. I am very impressed that you have such a fine woman president in Dr. Pamela Fox, who is known for her teaching and her scholarship in the history of music, as well as for her many skills as an administrator, and that you have so many excellent women members of your faculty, including chairs of departments, such as Mary Hill Cole of the department of history, whom I know as a superb scholar and dedicated teacher. This spring I visited Staunton for the first time and loved it here and was thrilled to be invited back for your graduation. I know that Mary Baldwin University has also had a long tradition of social engagement, and this is something about which I, too, am deeply committed. Just so you know a little about the person who is addressing you today, I have for many years dedicated a large part of my life to teaching and to scholarship, much of which focuses on women.

Graduation is a very exciting time and I know we want to get on with the rest of it, so, as Henry VIII said to his wives: I will not keep you long. Having this opportunity to address you, as you are about to go out into the world with your degrees, I want to begin by quoting something said by Sigmund Freud. Some of you may find it odd, given my perspective as a feminist scholar, for me to quote Freud. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a good statement by Freud is just that. Once a reporter asked Freud what made someone a healthy adult. The reporter expected Freud to go on and on with a long and convoluted elucidation. Instead, Freud was very brief and to the point; he said that a healthy adult is someone who has the ability to love and to work.

So what I wish for all of you is significant work and meaningful relations with others. I am using both of these terms — love and work — in the broadest sense. I mean work that is profound and important, that makes us feel good about ourselves and the world in which we live and our place in it. Often this is the work by which we earn our living, but often, it is not. It’s how we spend at least part of our days, whether in study, volunteer work, in creating, and in reaching out to others.

And I am using love in the broadest sense, as well. Not only our love for our families, a special person in our life if we have one, our friends, but a love for other people that keeps us connected in our world. As a historian and a lover of literature I read a lot and I like to remember phrases that move me. I was particularly struck by the poem “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden. Here are the last few lines:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Whether we love one another or not, we will, all of us, die anyway. Particularly after the terrible deaths at Virginia Tech last month, we are so aware of how suddenly that might be the case. But the quality of our lives here in Staunton, Virginia or wherever we are, will be much better and stronger if we can live our lives in a way we find loving and connected. As I say this, I know these are lessons that many of you have already learned. I’m so impressed with what I’ve learned about the students who are graduating. Let me give you a few examples.

Alison Kaufmann served as the 77th president of Mary Baldwin’s Student Government Association and is graduating as the outstanding senior in business administration. Her senior thesis examined the marketing of the Beijing Olympics. Alison was the recipient of the President’s Award, and I understand that she has been a remarkable ambassador for the college and a model of excellence for all students.

Another student who has been dedicated to the college and its students is Tiffany Jackson, who majored in English and has minors in African American studies and education. Tiffany received the Charlotte Forten Grimke Award for her service to the college and the community, and will be pursuing a career teaching high school.

Patty Grace is graduating as an honors scholar with a major in chemistry and a minor in Spanish. She served as chair of the Residence Hall Association.

McCall Carter wrote not one but two senior theses, one on genocide and one on the peace process in the Balkans. Recently inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, McCall received the college’s Honor and Integrity Award.

Also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa was Frances Slattery, who is graduating with a major in political science and minors in philosophy and leadership studies. She received the Unsung Hero Award for her service to the college including her work as a student advocate. Frances hopes to pursue work in international development.

Marcela Posadas who is graduating with a degree in Healthcare Administration wrote her senior thesis is on mammography screening among Latin American women. Marcela is a member of ODK honor society for leadership. She has served as a student ambassador and is member of the President’s Society.

Jessica Leccadito, who majored in political science, is a cadet captain in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, who was recently commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army. She has been a varsity cross country runner for four years and received the McArthur Award for leadership.

Sheree Parker, who has her own accounting practice, is graduating as the Baldwin Online and Adult Programs outstanding senior in business administration with distinction in the major.

Kimberly Allen also majored in business administration; Kimberly traveled to France with Mary Baldwin’s gospel choir, the Anointed Voices of Praise.

Melissa Cobb, who is graduating with a major in history and served as president of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honors society, wrote her senior project on food rationing in World War II and its effects on women. She was awarded the George C. Marshall Foundation scholarship. She will be teaching world geography and world history on the high school level in the fall.

Four Baldwin Online and Adult Programs students participated in the Capstone Festival this year: Lois Thatcher, Therea Bayes, Kathryn Wallace, and Candice Barnack, and 37 men and women were inducted into Alpha Sigma Lambda yesterday.

In addition to these baccalaureate candidates, the graduates of the masters’ programs are equally impressive: James O’Connell’s investigation of the use of the trap in early modern theatre, Sarah Ann Ill’s work on tapestries coincides with an important gift of tapestries to the Blackfriars Theatre, Johanna Kennedy was named a Teacher of Promise for the commonwealth this spring, and David Blevins is a gifted scholar in history and mathematics, a somewhat unusual combination for a middle school teacher.

These are just a few of the remarkable Mary Baldwin graduates. There are so many others — I know how proud all of you coming to this graduation are of your friends and relatives, and how proud each of you graduating should be of what you’ve accomplished.

I started with a quotation from Freud and so want to bring us back to another question that Freud had, and this time I may not sound as impressed with him as I was earlier. Freud asked in desperation, as the unanswerable question: What does a woman really want? As I have already told many of my own students — the answer was there hundreds of years earlier in a medieval folk tale, if Freud had only looked. I want to tell it, because I think it answers the question, not only about what a woman wants, but also what a man wants — what do we all want? There are many different versions of this story; here is my version.

Once King Arthur was in the woods going along as kings were no doubt wont to do, and he met an enormous knight who challenged him to a duel. What King Arthur did not know was that this knight was also a magician. And as a magician he was able to defeat even the great King Arthur. The magician had his sword out, and said to Arthur: “I could kill you right now. But I won’t. I am going to ask you a riddle. You must promise on your honor to come back in a year. If you tell me the right answer, I’ll spare your life, but if you don’t have the answer, I will kill you.” His question was: What does a woman really want? This was a real reprieve for Arthur, and he promised on his honor as knight and king to return in a year whether or not he knew the answer. The magician assured Arthur he would know in his heart of hearts when he had heard the right answer. The medieval equivalent of a light bulb would go off in his head.

So Arthur returned home, and figured he better start working on finding out the answer. He asked his wife Guinevere. She didn’t really understand the nature of the question. She just thought Arthur wanted to get an early start on holiday presents so she gave him her list — this was not really helpful. Arthur asked many people and got many different answers. Each time, he just knew in his heart of hearts that none of these answers were right. Time was slipping past. Soon he had to go back to the knight with no answer, and face his death.

In the woods, on his way back to the knight, he was stopped by the most horrible looking woman he had ever seen. She was truly loathsome. In fact, she was known as the “loathly lady.” She said to Arthur: “I know where you’re going, I know the question you’ve been asked. And I even know the answer. I’ll tell it to you, but you have to promise me in return that I get to marry one of your knights.” This seemed like a great deal to Arthur, especially since he was already married. So he agreed. And the loathly lady told him the answer, and Arthur immediately knew in his heart of hearts that it was the right answer. So he went merrily on his way to the magician-knight and gave him the answer. The knight/magician gnashed his teeth and was furious, but he had to let Arthur go free.

King Arthur was thrilled. As soon as he returned to his court he ordered a big party to celebrate. In the midst of all the joy, who should seek entrance but the loathly lady. Arthur, who was an honorable man, remembered his promise. He told his knights that to save his honor one of them had to marry this lady. They all looked at her in horror. And no one volunteered, until one of the knights, Gawain, decided that if Arthur was dishonored, so was he, and he agreed to marry her. The marriage ceremony was immediately performed, and Gawain and his bride went off to his chamber for their wedding night. In the room Gawain turned around, and in place of the loathly lady was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She explained to him that the magician was her uncle and he had put her under a spell — half the time she looked as her natural self (and she was glad that Gawain seemed to approve of her looks) and the other half of the time, she was enchanted to look particularly loathsome. She said to Gawain:”You are my husband. You shall choose. Shall I be beautiful by day or beautiful by night?”

Gawain thought, oh, I want her beautiful by day, so all the other knights will envy me. And then he thought, no, I want her beautiful by night so I can have her all to myself. Then another thought came to him, and he turned to her, and said: “You are the one who has to live with this. You must choose for yourself.” And the spell was broken, because what a woman wants most is autonomy, the right to make decisions about her life. And I think that is what we all — women and men — want — the right to make decisions about our lives and the ability to carry them out.

So I wish for all of you satisfying love and work, and the ability to mold your lives as you want them. I’ve quoted Freud to you, but I want to end by quoting someone else, Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the movement for women’s right to vote. She claimed that: “Failure is impossible.” For all of you, my congratulations on your graduating, and remember, failure is impossible.