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Honoring Our Own

June 5, 2022

As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Kirkland is still present at today’s Hamilton graduations. Many graduates carry on a tradition of presenting green apples to Hamilton’s president or wearing apple pins (you can find those stories at these links: Graduation Kirkland Style and Gone – But Not Forgotten). 2022 was no exception, but truly exceptional: two of our own took part in the ceremonies.

Elaine wearing an historic Kirkland gown.

At Hamilton College’s 210th Commencement on May 22, 2022, author Elaine Weiss (K’73) received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Appropriately, Elaine received this honor from fellow alumna Susan Skerritt (K’77), who is also a lifetime Hamilton trustee.

We thought it would be worthwhile to include here the written text of what Lori Richard Reidel (K’77), President of the Kirkland College Alumnae Association, recently shared with us via email. You can also watch the video, starting at about the one hour mark:

Here are Sue’s remarks before conferring this honor.

Having recently celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage, it is most fitting to honor your accomplishments as an author and journalist, because your highly regarded book, The Woman’s Hour, illuminates the little-known, final battle in the suffragists’ fight to win the right to vote.

With deep research, historic perspective, and terrific storytelling, you bring to life leaders on both sides of the struggle that unfolded in Nashville, TN. The Woman’s Hour, praised in The New York Times and in many other reviews, and has been called a “riveting, nail-biting political thriller” with “powerful parallels to today’s political environment.” Accolades include the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, the group’s highest honor for media and arts that furthers public understanding of the law and justice system.

You said in an interview, “My hope is that the story I tell in The Woman’s Hour, the defining battle in Nashville and the saga of the suffrage movement, will reassure a new generation that protest is patriotic, and will inspire American women — and men — to honor the legacy of these warriors for democracy by registering and voting in the next elections.” You can be sure you have motivated readers to value what the suffragists strove so long and hard to achieve.

The book was just the latest achievement in an award-winning career that stretches for decades. Your first book, Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War, explored another little-known piece of history — the women “farmerettes” who were dispatched to rural America to take the place of men who went to fight during World War I.

You’ve written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, and other publications and media outlets, receiving a Pushcart Prize “Editor’s Choice” award. We would like to think the spirit of Kirkland College runs through your work and through your passion for democracy. With great admiration and respect, we present you with this honorary degree.

At a celebratory dinner the previous evening, Elaine gave this speech to Hamilton’s president, senior officers, faculty members, trustees, and the other honorees. 

Thank you President Wippman, trustees and faculty, for this honor: allowing me to join the long and distinguished list of Hamilton Honorary Degree recipients, and enter into the small sorority of Kirkland educated-women who’ve been accorded this degree:

My friend Christie Bell Vilsack—an educator and public servant in so many notable roles,
The brilliant social commentator and cartoonist Roz Chast,
And the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner—who entered as a K student, but holds a Hamilton degree.

Tomorrow I will march in the Commencement procession wearing a green Kirkland academic robe, which belonged to Kirkland’s first Academic Dean, Dr. Inez Nelbach. It is a very rare and special garment: there are only two in existence—Sam Babbitt owns the other one– and both are over half a century old. They have a charming history:

In truth, there is no such thing as a Kirkland gown: the graduating classes chose not to wear gowns and mortarboards, we wore our own clothes to the ceremonies—a rainbow of color and styles. The faculty wore, as Prof. Thomas Colby phrased it, the “academic racing silks” of their own PhD institutions.

But founding Kirkland Trustee Grant Keehn—also a member of the Hamilton board–thought that for the new college’s inauguration of President Babbitt and Dean Nelbach, the academic officers should have proper Kirkland Green robes. Such robes did not exist—so he  had them made.

I will be wearing Dean Nelbach’s—which has been kept safe all these years by a Kirkland alumna. The gown is a bit long on me—Dean Nelbach was a more imposing figure than I am—but it will be fine. I’ll try not to trip.

And when I am hooded with a blue Hamilton honorary degree hood tomorrow morning—the blue adorning and supplementing the green–it will be the visual manifestation of how the two colleges worked together to educate their students—women and men– who were privileged to draw from the very different strengths of both institutions for a decade. It will be symbolic of my—and all Kirkland women’s–dual education on this Hill.

When I accept the Honorary Degree tomorrow, I will be representing all my Kirkland sisters; we are a small and finite band of spunky women.

We are the women who came to this Hill as brave pioneers, as agents of change. As visionaries and builders, as intrepid explorers of new paths. We changed this Hill forever. And the legacy of Kirkland can be felt in an invigorated Hamilton today.

In just a few weeks, the first Kirkland women to climb this Hill—the Charter Class—will be returning here to celebrate their 50th reunion.The first woman to ever deliver a 50th year Annalist Letter for her class –Betty Haggerty Marmon ’72—will speak from the pulpit in the chapel. Many of us: Kirkland  alumnae and faculty and administrators—will be returning with the Charter Class for a grand All-Kirkland reunion weekend. I’ll be there. 

So will Samuel Fisher Babbitt, Kirkland’s first—and only—president, returning to greet the Kirkland women—now (ahem) Senior Citizens—whose lives Kirkland touched so profoundly on this Hill. I don’t think he’ll be wearing his green robe, but it will be  historic. And bittersweet. 

My education of this Hill—the green and the blue—the Kirkland and Hamilton—prepared me, in mind and in spirit—to write the books of history for which I am being honored with the Honorary Degree.

It’s no coincidence that these books are about women pioneers—iconoclasts, change makers: they were Kirkland-type women, just ahead of our time. 

They are women whose names—and accomplishments—were, for the most part, unheralded. Women who faced societal and political resistance, and personal attack, as they used their wits and strategic genius to overcome obstacles to women achieving autonomy, agency, and equality. Doing what had never been done before.

Their roles in making history had been ignored for so long—though the historical record revealed a much richer story of their participation. And I wanted to tell that story.

My most recent book, The Woman’s Hour, is about extraordinary women organizing to win the vote, centered on the drama of securing the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

It was one of the pivotal political battles in American history, and women were at the center, the driving force, of it. There are many timely lessons to be learned from the suffragists’ tactics, and their persistence–and even from the opposition they faced. The arguments against equality they heard then are still being voiced today.

I dedicated the book to Natalie Babbitt—my mentor and close friend for four decades, who, as I say in the dedication, taught me how to be a writer.  She and Sam supported and encouraged me long after we’d all left the Hill. Natalie died just a week before I turned in the manuscript for The Woman’s Hour—portions of which had been written sitting on the Babbitt couch in New Haven.

The spirit of Kirkland –the ethos of exuberant exploration–has animated my life—and my career: giving me the nerve to try something new and scary—a new career—leaving journalism to write books–after my 50th birthday. Venturing into a new field—narrative history—without an academic historian’s credentials. And parachuting into new topics with each new book.

It is all, well, very Kirkland.

When I wrote The Woman’s Hour I thought I was just writing a book of history–a great story in itself: about how half of the citizens of the nation rose up to demand they have a voice in their own government. Even if it was not written into the Constitution: the Founders had no intention of allowing women to participate in our government “by and for the people”.

Then change the Constitution, the suffragists said. And they forced that change.

But I could not know that we’d now be in a time when the themes of the book are actually in our headlines today: voting rights again under attack; essential women’s rights in jeopardy; our democratic system itself under siege.

And books of history are being banned by state legislators and local school boards, because they reveal uncomfortable truths. I’ve been alerted that The Woman’s Hour—especially the Young Readers edition used in schools and libraries—might well be banned from use in several states.

States where recent laws forbid teachers discussing, or using books, that deal with controversial aspects of our history. Laws requiring librarians to submit the titles on their shelves to a state-appointed commission for approval.

It’s true: The Woman’s Hour deals extensively with the racism and misogyny at the heart of the battle over women’s suffrage: I’m very proud to have caused such therapeutic discomfort. I know my Kirkland and Hamilton professors would be pleased.

Tomorrow I’ll march with the Hamilton Class of ’22. I’m sure they’ve been equipped with the intellectual tools and critical skills to face the challenges of the challenging and frightening world they’ll be entering.

But I hope they will also carry with them some of the Spirit of Kirkland that still abides on this Hill: giving them the audacity to make bold moves, take big chances, and tell the hidden stories that need to be told.

We’re so thrilled to have our alumnae recognized in this meaningful way, particularly in a year in which the Charter Class is celebrating its milestone anniversary.

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