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The Oprah Connection

Goucher College seal

There is little that Oprah Winfrey can’t lay claim to on her resumé: Academy Award nominee, undisputed talk-show queen, leader of the world’s biggest book club, Broadway producer, one of Time magazine’s “most influential people of the 20th century”—and Goucher College Commencement speaker.

It is hard to imagine some 25 years later, but on Sunday, May 24, 1981, the young WJZ-TV reporter and co-host of “People Are Talking” stood before the assembled graduates, families, faculty, and staff and confessed that she was more than a little intimidated to be speaking to them.

After delivering a dead-on impersonation of Dorsey (“‘Miss Winn-fray, the women of Gowww-cher have selected you as our commencement speeea-kar.’”), Winfrey—only five years older than most of the graduates she addressed—took a more serious tone as she awakened the graduates to some of the realities they, as women, would face in the workplace and the world at large.

In her now-classic style, Winfrey quoted poetry from Carolyn Rodgers and Maya Angelou, evoked the words of Sojourner Truth, and offered her own sisterly advice. “Your best is all you’ve got and when you’ve given that you can’t give any more. You just have to give it up … Therein lies your power, knowing yourself enough to know what your potential and limitations are,” she said. “Some would argue that you have no limitations, only the sky’s the limit. But within that thinking is a reality that says everybody can’t be famous. But we can all be great because greatness is determined by service. How well you serve yourself, your fellow man and woman.”

“It is an impressive speech, even today,” notes Sheila Ward Siebert ’81, who retains the copy she requested from WJZ shortly after the ceremony. “Whether you are an Oprah fan or not, you have to admire that her integrity is still intact. She’s remained true to her ideals and philosophies.”

The Speech

Dr. Dorsey, Faculty, Students:

I’ve been trying for weeks now to come up with words that might help me express this great sense of humility and honor for being asked to address the Goucher Graduating Class of 1981. I haven’t found them yet, so I can only say thank you. I am humbled – I am honored. I am grateful for this opportunity to share a bit of myself with you.

To be quite honest with you, it is one of the most intimidating experiences I’ve ever known. Several years ago, I remember performing my one-woman show at the Lincoln Center in New York and having my friends ask, “Weren’t you nervous? How intimidating!” Intimidated, didn’t know the meaning of the word until six months ago when President Dorsey came to visit me at WJZ with a stack of information this high about Goucher. I didn’t know what was going on, thought it was somebody else wanting to get their school on TV, until she opened her mouth. “Miss Winn-fray, the women of Gowww-cher have selected you as our commencement speeea-kar.” Holy, holy, that’s real grown-up stuff, I thought.

But I tried to remain cool and not fall out of my chair. Because, as you know, just being in the presence of President Dorsey is enough to intimidate anybody. And if you’re not careful, you’ll start fidgeting and wondering where did I put those little white gloves and why didn’t I wear pumps and pantyhose today instead of these grubby ol’ frye boots. Later that day I strolled into the show office and sort of casually mentioned I was speaking at Goucher’s graduation. Everyone gave a collective gasp. Goucher College???? Oooooooh dear, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? So I decided to pay you all a visit one afternoon to see what all the gasping was about.

I set foot on this campus and immediately knew. I toured the various facilities, taking a look at what you do here. I’d already heard about this school’s outstanding achievements in academics. The controversy over more emphasis on career orientation rather than liberal arts. I’d heard about how magnificent this campus looks when clothed in the splendor of Spring. I was still most impressed to see it all.

But the most impressive aspect of this entire college campus was not the grand old dorms or the sculptured auditorium, or even the pervading legacy of achievement that has been left here by so many women before you. The most impressive was YOU. Some of you I met, others I just observed sun…uhmm, pardon me, studying, and I was most impressed. Impressed with your overwhelming and endearing graciousness. Impressed with your intelligence, your perception, your assertiveness, your curiosity, your levelheadedness in spite of the fear. Fear of not knowing what direction your life will take – fear of leaving the security of yet another home. I left here that day also a little fearful. Afraid that I might not know the right words to say to you to make the transition a little easier.

Because you see, when I was a little girl growing up in Kosciusko, MS, living on a farm alone with my grandmother, the nearest neighbor being Cousin Henry two miles down the road, I used to dream of being just like you. Going to a fine school, having all goals or dreams seemingly within my reach. I used to dream. When I became old enough, or wise enough, to realize that I couldn’t be just like you. I wanted to be Diana Ross, or just be somebody’s Supreme. It was the longest time before I looked in the mirror and not only accepted, but liked, what I saw. Oprah, Oprah-woman, Oprah-human, Oprah-black. And I tell you it was some kind of revelation. Better than the time I discovered long division. That took forever. Everybody else got it in the third grade. For me, it was Miss Stagg’s second semester fifth-grade class before I really understood why 250 divided by 25 =10. I used to alwaysget confused with numerators and denominators in long division, in life.

So it was an even greater lesson to learn that you and I really are different. And that’s okay. We all have numerators that set us apart – sex, economic background, what your father does or does not do, the schools you could or could not afford – numerators. But the denominator in life as in long division is always the same. No matter who you are – how smart, how pretty, how wealthy. How not – you are, we are, all human. Human beings struggling to keep that denominator constant, struggling to be more human. And I’ve found that the struggle, the sheer challenge of being a decent, caring human being becomes even more difficult when the female factor kicks in. So for a few moments, I want to talk to you about the “Female Factor/Power and Powerless.”

I love my father. He is my history, he is my root, my rock. He raised me to be a very nice girl who treated people nicely. He taught me to never be angry – just reasonable. Reason with people and they reason back, he said. Be nice to people and they will nice you right back. That’s what my Daddy taught me. What he didn’t tell me is that not everybody’s dad was teaching them the same thing.

So, in situation after situation, I found myself one black woman rendered powerless! Being preyed upon by other people who were not only unreasonable, but just unfair. Powerless because I kept trying to be liked by people who didn’t even like themselves. Powerless! Because I believed the world was one big popularity contest that I had to win or accept failure as a woman – as a human being.

Although I had the good fortune of being one of the youngest anchors in the country, reading the nightly news on a CBS affiliate in Nashville at the age of 19, I found myself always apologizing to my peers to try to alleviate their jealousies. It didn’t work. I took my entire sophomore Speech Class out to lunch one day to try to make them like me. I thought if I spent enough money on them and laughed a lot they’d know I really was a nice person. It didn’t work. It did leave me broke, and Powerless! Not everybody, thank goodness, goes to that extreme. Most people don’t let others undermine their pocketbooks. Even worse they allow others to undermine their spirits, and make us doubt what we know to be true. It is a powerless function – self-doubt, and an unfortunate factor in the female condition we have to fight. Because there is just no room for self-doubt in a world that’s set up to make us feel powerless. A world that is controlled by men.

Please don’t let your liberated notions fool you. It is a man’s world! And why shouldn’t it be? They’ve been running it for years while we stayed at home with the children, or worked when we could – “to help out.”

Some of that, of course, has changed. There are more women in management, in corporate rooms and college boards, and in law. Ten years ago, less than three percent of the country’s lawyers were women. Now, 26 percent of law students are women – the greatest increase in any of the professions.

We can’t deny that our recent strides with women in public and private office are significant. But they are still only whispers. A murmur here and there. Jane O’Reilly says in her book, The Girl I Left Behind, “Tiny first steps on the private level cannot obscure the obdurate stonewalling going on at the public level.” Men, the so-called new men, who are trying being equal for a while because women have changed and they have to respond. These new men who now want to talk about their feelings and the old men who now don’t know what feelings are and assume that it is their “God-given right” to have domination over women. These men are still the people making public policies. Policies that are currently geared to deny our right to choose what to do with our own bodies. Policies that maintain women at half the wage level of men. Policies that ignore the fact that three-quarters of the poor people in this country are women, people and their children.

That is why inflation among other things is a woman’s issue. And a main factor in this power struggle. Women earn, on the average, 59 cents for every dollar men earn. So when people start talking about reductions in spending power whether it’s seven percent or 17 percent or, God forbid, 70 percent, it is women who will feel it – who will hurt the most because people who earn 59 cents on the dollar have a hard time just surviving. Women right now make up 41.7 percent of the entire labor force. Eighty percent of those women are concentrated in jobs at the low end of the pay scale – in retail stores, factories, service industries, as waitresses, maids, and clerical occupations. A low paying job is usually a powerless job – no benefits, no security.

Ahhhh – but you say, “Why tell me this? I’m a Goucher grad – prestigious school, training, background – the works. And I say to you the same words that were echoed time and again by the slaves, “Ain’t nobody free ‘til we all is free.”

Jane O’Reilly updates that statement. She says, “In the end we are all housewives – the natural people to turn to when there is something unpleasant, inconvenient, or inconclusive to be done. It will not do for women who have jobs to pretend that society’s ills will be cured if all women are gainfully employed. In Russia 80 percent of working age women are employed outside the home, but none of them is at the top level of government. They are however still in charge of all of the housework. It will not do for women who are mostly housewives to say that women’s lib is fine for women who work but has no relevance for them. Equal pay for equal work is only part of the argument – usually described as the part I’ll go along with. We are all housewives. We would prefer to be people. That’s the part they don’t go along with.”

And I say to you – women are 70 percent of hospital workers, but 90 percent of all doctors are men. Women are 67 percent of public school teachers, but only two percent of secondary school principals and 18 percent of primary school principals are women. Women are only 15 percent of trustees and regents on university and college governing boards. Out of the 6,400 officers and directors of the 1,300 largest companies, only 10 are women. TEN!

This scant intrusion by women upon the upper ranks of the working world is not because we are stupid or lack self confidence or have a poorly developed work ethic. It is because, as Rosabeth Kanter, author of Men and Women of the Corporation, put it, “It’s hard to be a team player when they don’t want you on their team.”

And so we don our business suits, dressed for success with out Louis Vitton briefcases in hand, and try to accept the fact that it is a man’s world and we have to play by their rules for now. So we try to do whatever we can to fulfill our potential – to earn a dollar. Because unlike our mothers, we know that by the time we are middle-aged we have more than a 50 percent chance of never being married, divorced, widowed, or separated. So there’s no denying the obvious. We have to take care of ourselves – and the children. We must find what bits of love we can and be on with it, knowing that we will have our friends. Because unlike our mothers we also know that should that white knight (or black knight) in shining armor come riding along he will probably be gay – or just confused. Which brings us to the most powerless, rendering position of all – the love game. Which is also almost always played by the man’s rules. Again Jane O’Reilly says, “The men who say they do not know how to love speak the simple truth. Love for men used to be handing over the paycheck and having the final word. They have not yet had time to realize that they have been released from a tremendous burden if they are no longer expected to spend their lives solely supporting women and children. Instead of learning to share responsibility a lot of them are still grieving for their lost authority. When they murmur as explanation, ‘I’m not sure I know what love is,’ they mean they are afraid of what they think it is. Impossibly idealistic men imagine love as something frightening and weakening, something that will devour them – something that can never be lived up to – something that interrupts life and somehow endangers and diminishes the lover. They withdraw, and women are supposed to coax them out. We are expected to try to understand and explain what love is. We are, in other words, supposed to do all the heavy lifting in the relationship.”

It’s frustrating and lonely, this love game – that is if you’re lucky enough to have a relationship with someone who’s worth the trouble. No doubt one of your single greatest disappointments upon leaving here will be to discover that the reason you haven’t had a decent date for four years is not because you were at a woman’s college, but because the kind of man you’re looking for just isn’t there. It’s a grave disappointment because even those of us who consider ourselves liberated often harbor in the back of our minds those old wishful thoughts that we’re just biding our time until “Mr. Right” comes along. Carolyn Rodgers says in her poem:

We are
lonely women, who spend time waiting for occasional flings
we are talented, dedicated, well read
we are lonely.
we grow tired…
being soft and being hard
earning our own bread.
knowing that need must not show
will frighten away
knowing that we must
walk backwards nonchalantly on our tip-toesssss
if only for stingy moments
we buy clothes, we take trips,
we wish, we pray, we meditate, we curse, we crave,
we coo, we caw
we need ourselves sick, we need, we need
we lonely we grow tired of tears we grow tired of fear
we grow tired but must always be soft and not too serious
not too smart not too bitchy not too sapphire
not too dumb not too not too not too
a little less a little more
add here detract there

[From how i got ovah, New and Selected Poems by Carolyn M. Rodgers; Anchor Books, Anchor Press/Doubleday; Garden City, New York, 1976.]

LONELY – because we continue to make the powerless mistake of judging our self-worth by the kind of man we can attract.

It is not a very happy picture, self-doubt, discrimination, inflation, lost loves, and loneliness. But each of us has the power to make a difference. It is not an easy battle, this struggle to be human.

You’ve got to be armored before you can claim the victory. And the best ammunition is a developed mind and disciplined spirit, combined with the wisdom that, less than your best, is a sin. But your best is all you’ve got and when you’ve given that you can’t give any more. You just have to give it up. That applies to all situations – bosses to boyfriends. Therein lies your power, knowing yourself enough to know what your potential and limitations are. Some would argue that you have no limitations, only the sky’s the limit. But within that thinking is a reality that says everybody can’t be famous. But we can all be great because greatness is determined by service. How well you serve yourself, your fellow man and woman.

Know that you and your God are the most powerful force you’ve got. And learn how to tap into that power. You see, prayer is the taproot and sometimes you have to act as if everything depended upon you, but pray as if everything depended upon God. You see, prayer is not the power but it provides transportation to the source. It’s like a room wired for electricity complete with chandeliers, and lanterns, and floor lights, and strobe lights, and a switch that’s in the far corner of the room. Some people walk into that room and curse the darkness. Others take time and look for the switch way over there in the far corner of the room, and when they find it they just turn it on. Turn on that power! We all can do it. No matter what your numerator is, we are all phenomenal women.

Maya Angelou says it best in her poem, “Phenomenal Woman”:

Pretty women wonder
just where my secret lies
cause I’m not cute or built
to suit a fashion model’s size
but when I try to tell them
they say I’m telling lies
I say it’s in the reach of my arms
the span of my hips
the stride in my step
the curl in my lips
cause I’m a woman
phenomenal woman,
that’s me.

I walk into a room
just as cool as you please
and to a man
the fellows stand or fall down
on their knees,
and then they swarm around me
a hive of honeybees
I say it’s the fire in my eyes
the flash of my teeth
the swing in my waist
the joy in my feet
I’m a woman phenomenally,
phenomenal woman
that’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
just what they see in me
they try so much
but just can’t touch
my inner mystery
when I try to show them
they say they still can’t see
I say it’s in the arch of my back
the sun of my smile
the rise of my breasts
the grace of my style
I’m a woman phenomenally
phenomenal woman
that’s me.

Now you understand
why my head’s not bowed
I don’t shout or jump about
or have to talk real loud
but when you see my passing
it ought to make you proud.
I say it’s in the click of my heels
the bend of my hair
the palm of my hand
the need for my care
cause I’m a woman phenomenally
phenomenal woman
that’s me.

and if each of us is a phenomenon how greater still are we together.

In closing, I’d like to remind you of another speech given by another woman before a group of daring women who were rallying for their rights at a convention in Akron, OH, in 1891. Proud, inspiring, powerful, Sojourner Truth walked to the podium and spoke.

“W’all chillum where there is so much racket there is bound to be somethin’ out of kilter. I think twixt the womens at the North and the niggers at the South, white man’s gon’ be in a fix pretty soon.

“And what’s all this here commotion about women’s rights? That little man ober there say, ‘Women ought not to have as much rights as men, cause women needs to be helped into carriages and ober mud puddles.’ W’all! Ain’t nobody helping me into no carriages and ain’t nobody helped me ober narry a mud puddle, and ain’t I a woman? And that little fella in black there say women ought not to have as much rights as men cause Christ w’arnt a woman. I say, where’d your Christ come from? You heard me, where’d your Christ come from? He come from God and he come from a woman! Man ain’t had nuthin’ to do with him!

“Everywhere I go people wants to talk to me about this women’s rights. I tells them just like I’m telling you now. It seems to me if one woman, Eve, was able to turn this world upside down all by herself, then all of us womens in here together ought to be able to turn it right side up! And now that we’s askin’to do it, y’all mens better let us!”

Peace and power to you all!

Thank you.


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