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Swarthmore Commencement Address -- Mary Schroeder '62

May 2006

This is a really big deal. The days I graduated from Swarthmore 44 years ago and from the University of Chicago Law School, three years later, were proud days, but no comparison to this. Indeed, my law school graduation was dampened a bit for my parents when one of my professors told my parents they had wasted their money because, as a woman, I would never use my legal education.

Fortunately, no one at Swarthmore ever made such a comment, because it would have been contrary to what Swarthmore has always stood for. Still more fortunately, by the time the comment was made at my law school graduation, it was way too late to stop me.

At Swarthmore, I studied history that would prepare me for the history I was to witness first hand. At Swarthmore, I was inspired to go to law school by the greatest constitutional law teacher I ever saw, who was not a lawyer, but a political scientist — Swarthmore's incomparable J. Roland Pennock.

Swarthmore and Prof. Pennock gave me the encouragement and opportunity to do what few women thought of doing in 1962 — to become a lawyer and to aspire to public service at the highest levels. So my charge to you is about opportunity.

Swarthmore gave me opportunity, and in return, I have tried to open the doors of opportunity to others, including, most conspicuously, the diverse array of law clerks I have hired. Their ranks include, for example, Elizabeth Scott, now a vice-president of Major League Baseball by day and choral conductor of the Bronx Opera by night; Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, now Associate Professor and Deane F. Johnson Faculty Scholar at Stanford University Law School; and Janet Napolitano, now the governor of Arizona.

When my law school professor of 4 decades ago remarked about women never using their legal education, he was indulging in one of the favorite past-times of the era, one that is still popular among those that have not studied history, that of stereotyping. Stereotyping will never be a legacy of Swarthmore and it should not be tolerated under our constitution and laws. Stereotyping brings about injustice and denial of opportunity.

For my generation, the inspiration to end injustice and open opportunities came in a speech. I remember watching and hearing that speech in 1961, in black and white of course, on the only TV set available for students on this campus. It was a speech by a very young, very charismatic, and very sexy new president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I remember actually hearing for the first time the magic words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Those words may sound corny now but we believed them. We followed them. Some of us, like me, went to law school with a vision of public service; others joined the Peace Corps; others headed South and worked with Martin Luther King.

The triumph of our early work came a few years later, in 1964, when President Johnson signed Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964, intended to guarantee equal opportunities in employment. Why was that law so important? Because when I graduated from Swarthmore in 1962, as a woman, I could not have found a non-clerical job in the Federal Government. I know that, for I served as an intern in the U.S. Senate in 1961. I sat back in the office and typed letters, while the male interns went on the floor with the Senator. Four years later, in 1965, when I graduated from law school, Federal agencies were beating on my door to offer positions handling significant government litigation. The 1964 law opened up these opportunities for me.

And "opportunity" is what you have as you graduate from this wonderful institution today. That is what a first class education provides to all fortunate enough to receive one in this great country.

So my charge to you is to use the opportunity you have been given to provide opportunities to those who still, regrettably, feel the effects of stereotyping. A Swarthmore degree, with honors or distinction, or without them, will open doors for you. Don't close them behind you.

The dream of my generation when we graduated from Swarthmore was to see the doors open for everyone. History, including Vietnam, prevented us from realizing the vision of equal justice and equal opportunity that we dreamed with our heroes, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Your generation will find new heroes. Perhaps some of you will be among them. Help them and help each other reach, at last, my generation's goals of equal justice and equal opportunity, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.