A Left-Handed Commencement Address
A Left-Handed Commencement Address
By: Ursula K. Le Guin
Date: May 1983
Source: Le Guin, Ursula K. "A Left-Handed Commencement Address" in Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York: Grove Press, 1989. Available at 〈http://gos.sbc.edu/l/leguin.htm〉 (accessed March 20, 2006).
About the Author: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–) is an awardwinning science fiction author.
"A Left-Handed Commencement Address" is the text of a commencement address delivered at Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1983 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Mills College was founded in 1852 as a women's college and is still women-only at the undergraduate level.
Le Guin's speech encapsulates the branch of feminism that emphasizes the essential peacefulness of women as compared to men. This school of thought stresses that men have historically tended to fight wars and think in terms of opposites—true/false, strong/weak, win/lose, succeed/fail—while women have, as Le Guin puts it, "lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean—the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life." Since our culture has been dominated by men for thousands of years, it has become, in this view, a "man's world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power," a "psychopathic social system." Le Guin urges the women and men in her audience to reject the competitive, either/or world of "Machoman" and choose to live "without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated."
"Left-handed" is a reference to Le Guin's 1969 science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which won the Nebula Award in 1969 and Hugo Award in 1970. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the earliest explicitly feminist works of science fiction, and it helped establish Le Guin's reputation as a feminist thinker. Many of the ideas presented in compressed, declarative form in the address are worked out in imaginative terms in the novel.
In 1983, when Le Guin addressed the graduates of Mill College, the changes made by feminism in the 1970s were under various forms of cultural counterattack. The presidency of Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor once known for portraying cowboys, foot-ball players, soldiers, and other archetypically masculine roles, coincided with a political resurgence of political, gender, and religious conservatism and heightened global military tensions. In 1982, the year before Le Guin's address, Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in a speech to the British House of Commons, fanning global fears of all-out nuclear war. Only two months before Le Guin's address, Reagan had called for the U.S. to deploy a vast complex of orbital weaponry known as the Strate-gic Defense Intitiative or "Star Wars", hence LeGuin's reference, in the address, to a "sky full of orbiting spyeyes and weaponry." The intersection of archetypical heterosexual maleness with military aggression was probably particularly stark for Le Guin in this context.
Despite apparently blaming men for most of what is wrong with the world, Le Guin is not anti-man. In her address and in many other essays, she speaks hopefully to and about men. As of 2006, she had been married to her first husband, historian Charles Le Guin, for over fifty years. And the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness is a heterosexual man.
The reference to left-handedness in the titles of both the book and the address is somewhat cryptic: the inhabitants of Gethen are not particularly left-handed, and in actuality men are slightly more likely to be left-handed than women. Left-handedness is apparently cited as a metaphor for that disapproved (or less-approved), non-dominant side of human nature that Le Guin identifies as particularly female. In many societies, the left hand is used for personal hygiene after defecation, and it is a social offense to present the left hand in greeting or to use it while taking food from a common dish. Our word "sinister" is from the Latin for left.
I want to thank the Mills College Class of '83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women.
I know there are men graduating, and I don't mean to exclude them, far from it. There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, "If you don't understand Greek, please signify by nodding." Anyhow, commencements are usually operated under the unspoken agreement that everybody graduating is either male or ought to be. That's why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men's language. Of course women learn it. We're not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man's world, so it talks a man's language. The words are all words of power. You've come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can't even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Maybe we've had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything—instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won't sound right. It's going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if—only if—you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they're beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?
Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don't even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you're weak where you thought yourself strong. You'll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself—as I know you already have—in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Well, we're already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that's their country; let's explore our own. I'm not talking about sex; that's a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I'm talking about society, the so-called man's world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn't made by us or for us; we can't even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you'll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not men and the male power hierarchy—that's their game. Not against men, either—that's still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that's our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?
Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean—the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can't play doctor, only nurse, can't be warriors, only civilians, can't be chiefs, only indians. Well, so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers' tales about it, we haven't got there yet. We're never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you're good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it's second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they're going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing—instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
The Left Hand of Darkness, to which the title of Le Guin's address refers, is a science fiction story of the social thought-experiment type. In the book, a male ambassador from an interstellar human civilization where heterosexuality is the norm arrives on the planet Gethen. The ambassador's job is to see if the Gethenians would like to join the network of cultural exchange that is the primary activity of his civilization. The Gethenians are neither male nor female but androgynous. All individuals can sire children or bear them, and many have done both. They are gender-neutral most of the time but periodically shift into a sexually active phase that may be either male or female. Individuals are thus neither "men" nor "women."
By positing a world without maleness (or femaleness) as we know it, Le Guin can work out what she sees as the consequences of gender in our own world. The most notable consequence, war, she also emphasizes in her commencement address. On Gethen, violence occurs only on small scales.
In the larger discussion about whether behavioral differences between men and women are "programmed" by biology or learned by cultural immersion—the longstanding "nature versus nurture" debate—Le Guin occupies an ambiguous position. Since Gethen's warlessness arises from a biological cause, Le Guin seems to be saying that Earth's wars also arise from a biological cause—male sexuality. Yet the two-gendered civilization represented by her book's protagonist is nonviolent. Le Guin's position therefore appears to be mixed: aggression and war arise from biological causes, but do not arise from them inevitably. In this view, nurture can modify nature.
Ridley, Matt. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human. New York: HarperPerennial, 2004.
Inglehart, Ronald and Norris, Pippa. Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Justice, Faith L. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Salon, January 23, 2001.〈http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2001/01/23/le_guin/〉 (accessed March 2, 2006).