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Stand Up, Speak Out: The Trinity Imperative


(Cap & Gown Convocation, photography by Timothy Russell)

Congratulations to Trinity Seniors who received their caps and gowns at the annual Cap & Gown Convocation on Saturday! This Gold Class of 2019 follows a continuum of Trinity seniors who have participated in the Cap & Gown ceremony in one form or another since 1903!  115 years of Trinity’s grandest tradition!

Below are the remarks I delivered at the end of the convocation:

Stand Up, Speak Out: The Trinity Imperative

By President Patricia McGuire

Recently I gave a television interview about one of the many hot topics of this historic era.  In the course of the discussion I said something critical about a prominent public figure.  [For my purpose at this convocation tonight, I’m not going to say who it was or what the topic was, since I don’t want your thoughts distracted by the politics of the issue, I’m making a different point in this speech.] After the klieg lights were turned off and the reporter and I were chatting about other issues, the camera person came over to me and said, “So aren’t you afraid to say all that?”  I was shocked; the camera person almost never talks, but obviously, the people behind the lens have opinions, reactions and observations.  So I replied, “No, why should I be afraid?”

“Well,” he said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit here, “maybe something bad could happen to you because of what you said.”

Wow.  This is the United States of America, 2018 — not Germany 1942, or the Soviet Union 1960, or China or Syria or Burma or Saudi Arabia or Iran or North Korea.  No, we are not like those places, but the fear that we could become them — lose hold of our rights to free thought and expression and assembly and press, slip down the long slide into abject, silent tyranny — this is a real fear, a real threat in this moment in America 2018.

I replied to him, “No, I’m not the least bit afraid.  I was educated to speak the truth.  You asked for my opinion on an important topic, and I gave you my honest response based on my understanding of the facts.  No one should be afraid to speak forthrightly about the most critical issues we face today.”

Now, you know that I’m a Trinity Woman, and you know me well enough to know that I speak up quite often.  For 120 years, Trinity has been educating women (and, more recently, men, too!) to be confident, to speak up, to take our rightful seats at the table of public discourse and advocacy.  The Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity are our first exemplars, courageous women who were unafraid even as they confronted the opposition of powerful men to the founding of Trinity.  They persisted, and we are their beneficiaries.

We believe this kind of an education remains necessary for all students who come here, and especially for women, and this is why we sustain our women’s college at Trinity.  But there are some who say that this form of education is outmoded, that women have achieved full equality, that there is no longer a need for schools and colleges that have a particular mission to educate women to be strong and confident voices, actors with a purpose, leaders of courage and fortitude on the grand stages of communities and our global society.

No longer a need because women have achieved full equality? Really? Just read each day’s headlines, and it’s clear that the revolution is far from over.

Trinity persists because we know differently.  We look around and see a world in which silence is, too often, the norm; where women’s voices are, too often, muted; a world in which women continue to suffer the extreme horror of men clamping hands across their mouths to silence the screams of pain and rage against sexual assault and other forms of abuse.

We all have had the experience of being told to “hush-up.”  From our earliest ages, girls see and hear social cues about the advantages and expectations of submission and silence.  We are not raised with the hot fervor of freedom of speech, but rather, with the cool stare of knowing our place.

Is that true?  Aren’t we more evolved than that in the Year 2018?

Well, let’s ask Serena Williams.  The greatest tennis player of our time, perhaps all time, was chastised for her clothing at the French Open and penalized for her aggressive expression at the U.S. Open.  Even fame, wealth and years of championships could not protect Serena from the devastating pushback women hear all the time:  act like a lady, which generally means, sit down and hush up!

Let’s ask Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, who dared to organize survivors of sexual assault to come together, to speak out, to challenge institutions and systems that continue to silence women and repress justice for victims of abuse.  #MeToo has become a powerful movement exposing terrible crimes of powerful men especially in the media and entertainment industries; and yet, the movement is often mocked and belittled by people who seem to agree with those who think that women should just hush up.

Let’s ask Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while they were in high school.  Dr. Blasey, a research psychology professor at Palo Alto University, was reluctant to speak up, but felt she had a civic duty to do so.  She has received death threats for speaking out about her experience,  and has been subject to obscenely disparaging treatment including by members of Congress and even the president of the United States.

Let’s ask Trinity alumna Nancy Pelosi, Class of 1962, the Democratic Leader in Congress who was the first and still only woman elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives.  In last week’s Time Magazine cover story on her, Nancy was hailed as “…one of the most consequential political figures of her generation.”  But the cover story went on to describe the endless attacks on Pelosi not only by political opposition but even by people in her own party:

“Pelosi isn’t humble. Many women, she thinks, are afraid to show pride and need to see an example of confidence. …Pelosi seems to feel no need to apologize for her status in the way women are expected to and men rarely are. Perhaps the assertion of ego by a woman is the most radical act there is: the refusal to submit or be subordinate.” (Time Magazine, September 6, 2018)

We are called to take the radical action of standing up and speaking out every single day, to name the truth, to state the facts, to give voice to those who have none.  This is the assertion of ego, and it is essential to leadership.  This is the obligation that comes with your caps and gowns, the vestments of your Trinity education.

Now, I’ve been talking about women, but the men are not off the hook!  What’s important for women is equally important for men — let women be the exemplars in this discussion but men, too, have to stand up and speak out.

When that cameraman asked me if I was afraid to criticize a public figure, I don’t think it was a gendered question but rather a question about power and fear.  Men are just as susceptible as women to intimidation and fear, the power politics that rules this town every day.  Just look at the behaviors of members of Congress, so afraid to step outside the party lines.  The late Senator John McCain was held up as a hero for many reasons, including his willingness to, on occasion, reject the party line and take a stance in opposition to the status quo.  Few members of Congress, male or female, seem willing to do just that.

Let’s ask Colin Kaepernick, frozen out of his profession by spineless NFL owners, bullied and vilified by powerful people all because he had the courage to “take a knee” to protest police brutality and the grave injustices that black men face every day.  The efforts of the president of the United States, some NFL owners and others to repress the speech and expression of professional football players is a direct affront to our national values and civil rights.  The very flag that some people claim to be defending is a powerful symbol of the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of speech and expression.

Look at the conspiracy of silence in the Catholic Church, an ancient patriarchy now increasingly devastated by reports of priests abusing children going back decades.  For far too long, the response of the Church hierarchy, all male, was a deliberate and pernicious silence, a pall of deception in which perpetrators of horrific crimes were moved from parish to parish while the victims suffered in silence.  Powerful men in the hierarchy, the bishops and cardinals and maybe even popes, they knew what was going on, but they enforced the code of silence, until it was broken wide open, first by the free press in Boston, then by the justice system.

Last Monday, we observed Constitution Day, a moment mandated by Congress to educate the public about the importance of the document that is the framework for our democracy.  Members of the Trinity community participated in a straw poll that included questions about the First Amendment and the responses from students, faculty and staff expressed strong support for the importance of free speech and free press.

Of all the rights we have, Freedom of Speech is the most important right we have, because it is through speech that all of our other rights find their power and protection from tyranny.  Without free speech, democracy fails.

So many issues confront our society in this historic era.  Whether we agree or disagree about the circumstances and solutions for any particular issue, we must find common ground in the urgent need to address the problem of pervasive sex abuse across major social institutions from Hollywood to universities to the Catholic Church; we must come together as a free people to expose and reject interference in our elections by international provocateurs and dictators; we must insist that the wealthiest nation in human history can do better in sharing its talent and resources to improve the conditions of life for those who are marginalized; we must confront the lies that say that immigrants are threats to our nation, that undocumented persons are unworthy of our respect and assistance, that holding children hostage in cages is a legitimate tactic of a powerful government to enforce its laws.  This is wrong! We need to say so every single day! We must demand that our leaders speak truthfully and reflect the commonly shared values of a good society, to treat all people with respect, to oppose racism and sexism and unjust treatment of people based on who they are or who they love or how they speak or where they were born.

All of these contemporary issues and more require our confident and robust exercise of freedom of speech every day, all the time.  Two nights ago, I was honored to be at a meeting during which the great Ruth Simmons spoke.  She was the first African American Woman to become the president of an Ivy League institution when she became president of Smith College, and then president of Brown University, and then she came out of retirement to rescue Prairie View University.  She is feisty and forthright.  She said that she used to be afraid to speak out for fear that some people would demand that she be fired for saying hard things; but she persisted.  She also said the truest thing of all, that it is a bankrupt approach for a democratic society to dictate what people may or may not say.  Freedom of speech is everything.

We who have the privilege of this Trinity education, we must always stand up and speak out without fear, with confidence and with the conviction that our engagement and advocacy really can make a difference for others.  This is the imperative of our Trinity education.  Tonight, you, our seniors, take on these caps and gowns as symbols of that confidence and conviction, a statement about your readiness to step up to the Trinity imperative to be advocates for justice for those who need your voice in so many places.  In the years ahead, you will be called upon to stand up, to speak out without fear, to exercise the courage necessary to confront the powerful, to oppose injustice, to lead communities forward to a more peaceful, just and prosperous future.  You will do so with the knowledge and talents you have developed here.  And you will do all of this empowered through the strength, wisdom and infinite love of the Trinity that goes with you each day.

Congratulations, seniors, Gold Class of 2019!

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: