Dear Women of Sweet Briar,
This is a brilliant day that displays without much modesty the stunning beauty of the Virginian Piedmont. I am glad we are holding the fall convocation for 2020 here on the dell. From here you will behold the campus created by the great American architect, Ralph Adams Cram, as it was supposed to be seen – your eyes will gaze upward to the majestic ridge upon which the College’s initial buildings sit. It is meant to be awe-inspiring in its magnificence.
There is another kind of magnificence associated with this occasion. In eight days, we will be celebrating the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution that finally granted women the right to vote. This came at long last, after a century or more of agitation and protest, at local and national levels, at home and at work, dividing wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters against husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. But at long last it came.
It also came in the aftermath of the deadliest disease event in the history of humanity. We don’t know where the 1918 pandemic influenza, also known as the Spanish flu, came from –maybe it was from a Kansas army base, maybe it was in the trenches in France during World War I, or maybe it was from southern China – but it came with a devasting force. The most recent revision of global mortality from the 1918 flu puts it at 50 million people – with most casualties occurring in the areas soon to be known as the Third World and therefore simply ignored. The deaths in India alone could have been 20 million.
After a century we have come a full circle. We have a pandemic reminiscent of the 1918 flu that is global in scope – and in its midst, a push for racial equality and inclusion that has also been long in coming. There is a profound simplicity in these three words: Black lives matter.
By virtue of who you are – Sweet Briar women at this time and in this place – you have a responsibility like no other, like no students in other colleges.
Sweet Briar College is a college created with the sole purpose to educate women, so that you can realize your full potential as human beings in an environment without misogyny or intimidation. Gender equity is your birth right, then; it is also your responsibility. Just as for a century, women agitated to acquire voting rights, I hope you will continue to agitate, agitate, and agitate for your rights and rights of others who are marginalized, as women have been.
As a Sweet Briar woman, in a college with 3,000 acres of spectacular beauty and ecological wonder, you also have responsibility to steward this land. It is a complex responsibility. The pandemics we experience today, moving between the species, are the by-products of wildlife trade and habitat destruction, connected with logging and deforestation, that threaten human health as well as regional diversity. Combine that with a corporate “livestock revolution” and Third World urbanization, and the extraordinary Darwinian mutability is turned into dangerous biological forces.
These are big responsibilities you have. They come with the privilege of being Sweet Briar women – women who will inherit and own the twenty first century. When you lift your sight to the Ralph Adams Cram buildings, you realize that this college was meant, from its inception, to be a magnificent college – and like you, with a magnificent responsibility.
I wish you Godspeed, and a great academic year.
August 10, 2020