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25 Powerful Commencement Speeches by Famous Women

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock

Most commencement speakers joke that they can’t even remember who spoke on the day of their own graduation (much less the speech), but I can confidently say that if Taylor Swift or Michelle Obama had been on my graduation stage, the memory would be burned into my brain for the rest of time. In any case, as the back-to-school vibes are setting in, you might be feeling nostalgic for that breezy, exciting day when you too graduated and received some sage advice you sort of, basically remember. Maybe even from some of the world’s most famous women out there?

And if not, you can still get some inspo out of reading the most significant quotes from their time on stage since 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 as they were when they shared them. Read on for truth bombs from Swift, Toni Morrison, Stacey Abrams, Amy Poehler, and more on everything from taking risks to redefining success.

Taylor Swift, New York University, 2022

“Learn to live alongside cringe. No matter how hard you try to avoid being cringe, you will look back on your life and cringe retrospectively. Cringe is unavoidable over a lifetime. Even the term cringe might someday be deemed cringe.

I promise you, you’re probably doing or wearing something right now that you will look back on later and find revolting and hilarious. You can’t avoid it, so don’t try to. For example, I had a phase where, for the entirety of 2012, I dressed like a 1950s housewife. But you know what? I was having fun. Trends and phases are fun. Looking back and laughing is fun.”

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.”

Kristen Bell, University of Southern California, School of Dramatic Arts, 2019

“My sole trick to share with you is when you listen — when you really listen to people, when you listen as fiercely as you want to be heard, when you respect the idea that you are sharing the Earth with other humans, when you lead with your nice foot forward, you’ll win every time. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it comes back to you when you need it. We live in an age of instant gratification, of immediate likes and it is uncomfortable to have to wait to see the dividends of your kindness, but I promise you it will appear exactly when you need it.”

Stacey Abrams, Spelman College, 2022

“For so many years, we have been told to be fearless. That is the dumbest advice I have ever heard. Fear is real. And it’s usually a warning. It’s a caution to us, not to not act but to understand what we’re facing. I believe in embracing my fear. I take it out to lunch. Because if we are afraid of sexism, if we are afraid of racism, if we are afraid of success, if we are afraid of the limits of access — that’s okay. We need to know our fears, name our fears, number our fears — and then conquer our fears. Never let anyone tell you it’s wrong to be afraid. Fear is healthy. It is caving into fear that’s dangerous.

You see, I’m not afraid of fighting against those who tell me that we can’t have economic justice in America. Because they’re wrong and I’m right. I’m not afraid of saying that we should all have the right to voice our opinions in our elections, whether we agree with each other or not.
I’m not afraid of these things because I understand why fear happens. It happens because sometimes in our guts, we know that if we acknowledge our fears and embrace our fears, we may beat our best ambition. I want you to hold onto your fear, get to know it, give it a name, give it a nickname. But never give it control.”

Vice-President Kamala Harris, Tennessee State University, 2022

“Now, I didn’t attend Tennessee State, but I am a fellow HBCU graduate. And I’d like to share a little story with you. A story about the first time I flew on the vice-presidential helicopter, which is called ‘Marine Two.’

Now this day — it was not long after I was sworn in, and we were flying from Andrews Air Force Base to the official residence of the vice-president. And one of the Marines asked me to look out the window. As it turns out, they had a surprise for me. The helicopter was circling around Howard University, my alma mater. I looked out the window of that helicopter, Marine Two, and I saw that we were over the Yard, which is Howard’s version of the Courtyard. As I looked down out of the window, I saw myself at 17 years old walking across campus with a big stack of books tucked under my arms at a place just like this. That reinforced that I could be anything, do anything, even if it had never been done before. Like you and full of hope, full of dreams, with a future full of possibility just like you.

I stand before you today as the vice-president of the United States of America and as a proud graduate of an HBCU to say: There is no limit to your capacity for greatness and there is no obstacle you cannot overcome, and there is no barrier you cannot break.”

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.”

Gloria Steinem, Smith College, 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.”

Queen Latifah, Rutgers University, Newark, 2018

“I was taller than the other girls, bigger than the other girls, different than the other girls. By the time I was 13, I had a body. All of it. It was all there. Still is, and I’m damn proud of it. Anyway, I was looking for a role model to emulate, but nobody looked quite like me. And then I found myself standing on a lonely stage in our school production of The Wiz. I was [the big], tall Dorothy. But someone must’ve thought I had an okay voice, because I got to sing the finale, “Home.” I was petrified.

I looked out into the audience and just tried to focus on my mother’s smiling face in that crowd. And I sang, ‘When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing’. And suddenly, I wasn’t Dana. I wasn’t Dorothy. I wasn’t big Dorothy. And for the very first time I can remember, I was more than comfortable in my own skin. I was confident. I knew I had found myself. Bringing someone else to life on the stage in a way that came from deep inside, ‘Home’ wasn’t just a song. It was a foundation that taught me I didn’t need a role model. I didn’t need to try to be like someone else. I just needed to be me.”

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College, 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 College, 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 workforce 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.”

Lisa Kudrow, Vassar College, 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 College, 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.”

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 University, 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.”

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 College, 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.”

Oprah Winfrey, Wellesley College, 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.’”

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 College, 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 College, 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.”

Abby Wambach, Barnard College, 2018

“Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood. You know the fairy tale. It’s just one iteration of the warning stories girls are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods and is given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your head down, hidden underneath your Handmaid’s Tale cape. And she does … at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s, of course, when she encounters the big bad wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or bad things will happen. I stayed on the path out of fear — not of being eaten by a wolf — but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this: ‘Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood, you were always the wolf.’

Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the ‘other,’ about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless. And these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We will not Little Red Riding hood our way through life. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together, and change the whole bloody system.”

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25 Powerful Commencement Speeches by Famous Women