25 Powerful Commencement Speeches by Famous Women

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“When times get tough and fear sets in, think of those people who paved the way for you and those who are counting on you to pave the way for them.” —Michelle Obama Photo: Getty Images

This week, the Cut is talking advice — the good, the bad, the weird, and the pieces of it you really wish you would have taken.

Commencement season is in full swing and a new batch of soon-to-be college grads is donning caps and gowns to listen to a handful of the world’s-most-famous tell them how to make it in the working world. While many speakers joke each year that they can’t even remember who spoke on the day of their own graduation (much less the speech), in the spirit of Advice Week, we’ve culled together a list of striking quotes from famous ladies who delivered real, empowering, and provocative messages that are just as relevant today. Read on for truth bombs from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Amy Poehler, and 22 more on everything from taking risks to redefining success. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley, 1992
“As women today, you face tough choices. You know the rules are basically as follows: 
• If you don't get married, you're abnormal.
• If you get married but don't have children, you're a selfish yuppie. If you get married and have children, but work outside the home, you're a bad mother.
• If you get married and have children, but stay home, you've wasted your education.
• And if you don't get married, but have children and work outside the home as a fictional newscaster, then you're in trouble with Dan Quayle.

"So you see, if you listen to all the people who make these rules, you might just conclude that the safest course of action is just to take your diploma and crawl under your bed. But let me propose an alternative. Hold on to your dreams. Take up the challenge of forging an identity that transcends yourself. Transcend yourself and you will find yourself ... There is no dress rehearsal for life, and you will have to ad lib your way through each scene. The only way to prepare is to do what you have done: Get the best possible education; continue to learn from literature, scripture, and history, to understand the human experience as best you can so that you have guideposts charting the terrain toward whatever decisions are right for you.”

Zadie Smith, New School, 2014
"Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It’s a privilege. Don’t let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard-selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private plans, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don’t believe it. We are far more frequently each other’s shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world.”

Nora Ephron, Wellesley, 1996
“You are graduating from Wellesley in the Year of the Wonderbra. The Wonderbra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women. What I'm saying is, don't delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don't let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you — there's still a glass ceiling. Don't let the number of women in the work force trick you — there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents. Don't underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.”

J.K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008
“The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better.”

Lisa Kudrow, Vassar, 2010
“You can't pursue something and be committed to it if you're apologizing for it at every party. Which I did for a while. I learned you have to surrender to the fact that you are one of too many in a highly competitive field where it is difficult to stand out ... for now. Over time, through your work, you will demonstrate who you are and what you bring to the field. Just stay with it and keep working. I was collecting tools to cope with this uncertain path in case it got rocky later on, just in case. For now, it's good, though.”

Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth, 2014
"Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn't matter. You don't have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn't have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real."

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane, 2009
"As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure; to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person; to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that."

Naomi Wolf, Scripps College, 1992
“Become goddesses of disobedience ... We are told that the worst thing we can do is cause conflict, even in the service of doing right. Antigone is imprisoned. Joan of Arc burns at the stake. And someone might call us unfeminine! … Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, ‘disappeared,’ or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever. Next time, ask: What's the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down, and suggest it's personal. And the world won't end ... And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

Amy Poehler, Harvard Class Day, 2011
“Take your risks now. As you grow older, you become more fearful and less flexible. And I mean that literally. I hurt my knee on the treadmill this week and it wasn't even on. Try to keep your mind open to possibilities and your mouth closed on matters that you don't know about. Limit your ‘always’ and your ‘nevers.’ Continue to share your heart with people even if it’s been broken. Don't treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used. And don't try to give me that nerd argument that your heart is a Batman with a limited-edition silver battering and therefore if it stays in its original package it increases in value.”

Anne Lamott, University of California, Berkeley, 2003
“I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled — all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you — stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies ... I’d been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing all her life — metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn’t feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit, in the same way only your own blood type can sustain you ... So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you’re looking for is already inside you.”

Joan Didion, University of California, Riverside, 1975
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wellesley, 2015
“I urge you to try and create the world you want to live in. Minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get-your-hands-dirty way ... Write television shows in which female strength is not depicted as remarkable but merely normal. Teach your students to see that vulnerability is a human rather than a female trait. Commission magazine articles that teach men how to keep a woman happy. Because there are already too many articles that tell women how to keep a man happy. And in media interviews make sure fathers are asked how they balance family and work. In this age of ‘parenting as guilt,’ please spread the guilt equally. Make fathers feel as bad as mothers. Make fathers share in the glory of guilt. Campaign and agitate for paid paternity leave everywhere in America. Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.”

Gloria Steinem, Smith, 2007
“Your generation has made giant strides into public life, but often still says: How can I combine career and family? I say to you from the bottom of my heart that when you ask that question you are setting your sights way too low. First of all, there can be no answer until men are asking the same question. Second, every other modern democracy in the world is way, way ahead of this country in providing a national system of child care, and job patterns adapted to the needs of parents, both men and women. So don’t get guilty. Get mad. Get active. If this is a problem that affects millions of unique women, then the only answer is to organize.”

Patti Smith, Pratt Institute, 2010
"Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished. We are all Pinocchio. And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.”

Toni Morrison, Wellesley, 2004
“Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing, and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Trinity College, 2004
“If there is one lesson you should learn today, it’s not to waste one precious second of your life. You should never say ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I’m tired’ or ‘there’s nothing to do.’ There’s so much to do that you can’t possibly let one second slip by that’s not filled to the brim. For example, there are something like 130,000 books published in this country every single year...Or if you look at the newspaper there’s always a concert or a play or a movie to go to. And there are museums filled with exhibits. And a whole world of wonders to visit. And there are friends and family to see. Sporting events to take part in. Fabulous foods to taste. Delicious wines to sip. And, in my special arena, great moments to share with a partner.”

Condoleezza Rice, William and Mary, 2015
“You’re headed into a world where optimists are too often told to keep their ideals to themselves. Don’t do it. Believe in the possibility of human progress and act to advance it. Your passion may be hard to spot, so keep an open mind and keep searching. And when you find your passion, it is yours, not what someone else thinks it should be. Don’t let anyone else define your passion for you because of your gender or the color of your skin.”

Arianna Huffington, Smith College, 2013
“Don’t buy society’s definition of success. Because it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working for women, it’s not working for men, it’s not working for polar bears, it’s not working for the cicadas that are apparently about to emerge and swarm us. It’s only truly working for those who make pharmaceuticals for stress, diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness, and high blood pressure. So please don't settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flow chart. Change it by going to the root of what's wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.”

Oprah Winfrey, Wellesley, 1997
“Live your life from truth and you will survive everything, everything, I believe even death. You will survive everything if you can live your life from the point of view of truth. That took me a while to get, pretending to be something I wasn't, wanting to be somebody I couldn't, but understanding deep inside myself when I was willing to listen, that my own truth and only my own truth could set me free. Turn your wounds into wisdom. You will be wounded many times in your life. You'll make mistakes. Some people will call them failures, but I have learned that failure is really God's way of saying, ‘Excuse me, you're moving in the wrong direction.’”

Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard College, 2011
“Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face — and there will be barriers — be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold, and I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”

Rachel Maddow, Smith College, 2010
“When given the choice between fame and glory, take glory. Glory has a way of sneaking up on fame and stealing its lunch money later anyway. Life might very well be long, keep your eye on the horizon and live in a way that you will be proud of. You will sleep more. You will be a better partner. You will be a better mom. You'll be a better friend. You'll be a better boss, and you will not have to remember any complicated lies to brag about at the old-age home because you can brag about the truth of your well-lived life.”

Susan Sontag, Wellesley, 1983
“In Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, Book III, there is a place called the Castle of Busyrane, on whose outer gate is written 'BE BOLD,' and on the second gate, 'BE BOLD, BE BOLD,' and on the inner iron door, 'BE NOT TOO BOLD.' This is not the advice I am giving. I would urge you to be as imprudent as you dare. 'BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BE BOLD.'”

Maya Rudolph, Tulane University, 2015
If I could give my 21-year-old self any advice it would be take as many bikini photos as you can now because your body is smokin’ hot. And it will not be this bangin’ after childbirth ... If I must give any of you advice it would be Say Yes. Say Yes, and create your own destiny ... Hold on to your old friends. Kiss your mama. Admit what your dreams are. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what you’re gonna do tomorrow. But work hard and don’t be lazy. And put away your damn phone once in a while. And be nice to jerks, because we still don’t know the criteria for getting into heaven yet.”

Meryl Streep, Vassar, 1983
“That choice, between the devil and the dream, comes up every day in different little disguises. I’m sure it comes up in every field of endeavor and every life. My advice is to look the dilemma in the face and decide what you can live with. If you can live with the devil, Vassar hasn’t sunk her teeth into your leg the way she did mine. But that conscience, that consciousness of quality, and the need to demand it can galvanize your energies, not just in your work, but in a rigorous exercise of mind and heart in every aspect of your life. I firmly believe that this engagement in the attempt for excellence is what sustains the most well-lived and satisfying, successful lives.”

Michelle Obama, University of California, Merced, 2009
“When times get tough and fear sets in, think of those people who paved the way for you and those who are counting on you to pave the way for them. Never let setbacks or fear dictate the course of your life. Hold on to the possibility and push beyond the fear.”