Rachel Maddow’s Commencement Speech at Smith College

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Rachel Maddow’s Commencement Speech at Smith College

If you’re not a Smithie, chances are you’re still somewhat familiar with the mythology surrounding my beloved alma mater — that it’s some kind of Dyke Disneyland, or Lezzie Mecca, or just a 4-year-long Dinah Shore Weekend. You also probably think that it’s exaggeration and hyperbole. Well I’m here to tell you, dear reader, that it’s not.

Smith College is a place where queer women’s culture is the dominant culture, bringing along all our general penchants for progressive political shenanigans, and lots of long discussions about who’s offending whom and how to validate each other’s feelings. So you can only begin to imagine the level of teen-fan, Beatles at Shea Stadium insanity that took hold of the town when it was announced that Rachel Maddow would be this year’s commencement speaker. Not only is she the unofficial spokeswoman of queers near and far, she’s also a proud resident of the town of Northampton, MA (home of said college), where signs have begun popping up in shop windows that jokingly proclaim: Rachel Maddow for Senate—if elected, she WILL run! 

As a Smith alum, I was lucky enough to see this melee go down live, and if I could only say one thing about R-Mad’s speech, it would be this: I’m willing to bet it was the first time ever that snorting crystal meth off a toaster was mentioned in a commencement speech.

There was, of course, more to it than that — she also gave us a short history of why Prohibition was stupid, spinning a short yarn about a woman named Carrie Nation, who in the early 1900’s liked to go around smashing up saloons with a big rock, and later a hatchet — coining the term Hatchetations, in the hopes of making booze illegal throughout the United States. Maddow also cracked a little inside joke warning us not to confuse the hatchet with a labrys, which looks the same, but is very different.

The students and younger alums all giggled and nodded — yep, you’re gay, we’re gay, the labrys is gay — while our families and the sweet old ladies who provide for the college endowment looked on, we assume, innocent and unaware. (And yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it gave me a warm fuzzy to have this moment.) Moving on.

So, Maddow points out, Carrie Nation succeeded in achieving her personal dream — Prohibition was law for “thirteen insanely stupid years,” siphoning huge flows of cash away from the US economy and into the organized crime economy, and causing thousands of Americans to die from drinking poisoned industrial alcohol, among other asshattery. “It’s important to remember Prohibition,” Maddow says, “because it was a huge disaster for our nation — but a personal triumph for Carrie Nation.” This was the point of the story, the main teaching she hoped to impart in her address: that personal victories aren’t always a good thing. Jack Abrfamoff achieved his personal dream when he was appointed to Bush’s Department of the Interior (yes, this was when snorting crystal meth off toasters came up); someone else’s personal dream was achieved the day KFC came out with the double-down.

Amid the jokes and the laugher, Maddow’s point was clear: don’t turn into an asshat whose personal victories take priority over contributing something valuable to society. “Get smart,” she encouraged us, “and get smart fast. Be intellectually and morally rigorous, and expect the important people in your life to do the same. Know the difference between winning and leadership…and when given the choice between fame and glory, take glory.” Amen, sister. Now, where’s my hatchet?

Comments [10]

Rusty's picture

"Some dreams are bad dreams."

Nicely done, Dr. Maddow. That was an excellent address. My favorite line, "Some dreams are bad dreams." No kidding and well-argued.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

SMBrown's picture

I wonder

I wonder how many of these Smith grads know that 'Carry Nation' also refers to a dyke bar in Park Slope Brooklyn? 

Robin Rigby's picture

Chick in the front row, to

Chick in the front row, to the right of blonde in the sunglasses- "How you doin'?"

Oh, the speech was great too.  Thanks Jenny. Smile

geek4grammar's picture

haha, spoken like a true smithie!

robin, you've clearly been to noho at least in spirit ;p

glad you enjoyed! Smile

We're all born naked. The rest is drag.
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)

Robin Rigby's picture

I ate dinner there once. I

I ate dinner there once. Smile I was working for a customer in Amherst and drove the 8 miles or whatever it is to NoHo. It was spring and exceptionally green in the mountains.

I couldn't afford a private college though. I attended a state university in PA called IUP. The closest I got was being accepted to Seton Hall.

geek4grammar's picture

it's actually only 5 miles from amherst to noho ;)

...it only seems further because those two towns are basically the only outposts of civilization in western mass. I couldn't afford it either, in reality, but I was lucky enough to get a sweet financial aid package (sometimes it's actually easier when your parents are pathetic and penniless!) but yeah, I totally hear ya. especially now that I'm starting repayment on my grad school loans, which were MUCH bigger! c'est la vie, it got me to nyc, so I can't complain.

We're all born naked. The rest is drag.
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)

Not2Taem's picture

On a less enchanting note

I wonder what was going through the minds of the stern faced women with their arms crossed, at least one of whom made a definite pause before applauding with a serious lack of enthusiasm. Maybe just a bad day. Or tea-totelers?


Grace Moon's picture


adore women who've graduated from women's colleges... they are progressive, socially conscious, self-aware, and awesome.

tweet tweet @gracemoon

Jenny L. Aisenberg's picture

why thank you moon! (and I'm

why thank you moon! (and I'm glad you said graduated and not attended...otherwise we'd have to include barbara bush, heheh)

We're all born naked. The rest is drag.
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)

Tex's picture

Rachel making a point

 using Carrie Nation and alcohol - makes perfectly good sense! A side note and IMHO, the worst to come out of prohibition......NASCAR

"Personal triumphs are over-rated".....that's classic

Thanks, G4, looking forward to more "Smith" and "well-connected" stories.....

Twitter Time @kdhales