Study Guide

A Left-Handed Commencement Address

By Ursula K. Le Guin

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Introduction

Come To The Dark Side…

Whether you've ever wanted to be bilingual or you want to learn yet another language to add to your impressive arsenal, you should seriously check out Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Left-Handed Commencement Address," which tackles the thorny subject of how to speak in public in the language…of women.

There's no Rosetta Stone program for this one, folks. But Le Guin elaborates on what it means to cast off the cloak of patriarchal values and speak straight from the gut.

It's pretty remarkable that Le Guin not only gave a speech "in the language of women," but she did it in a room full of women, graduating from a women's college. When she did so in 1983, that wasn't something that had happened all that often. And somehow, she found a way to pull off the impossible, and she gave stirring speech denouncing the patriarchal traditions of Western education without using a lecturing, condescending, tone.

But that's just how Ursula Le Guin gets it done. She's amazing like that.

She paints pictures of a world that seems both bright and shiny in its ideology, but also dark and a bit scary in its subject matter. She wants people—but especially women—to embrace the darker side of life, the "helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, and for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean – the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life." (56)

Yeesh. That sounds pretty dim, doesn't it? But Le Guin wants us to be comfortable with those aspects of life because, she argues, those are the things that women are good at, and by accepting that fact we could improve society as a whole.

  

This Ain't Disney's Ursula: She Wants To Give You A Voice, Not Take It

What's really cool about this speech (other than Le Guin's wonderfully eloquent message) was when it was delivered, because 1983 was essentially the beginning-of-the-end of the Second Wave of Feminism movement. Because women and equality advocates couldn't get their act together to agree on what "feminism" really meant, the movement was starting to fall apart…though Le Guin didn't let that stop her from encouraging young women to continue to fight for their own brand of equality.

So in a time where activists were starting to struggle with their message, Le Guin was filling young idealists' brains with new ways to define success in an accomplishment-driven society.

You might be wondering, "But… who is Ursula Le Guin, and why should I listen to her?" Well, no one's going to make you, but she's someone really important to get to know.

The reason this speech is titled "A Left-Handed Commencement Address" isn't because she's a southpaw. Le Guin is known for her novels, which have won numerous accolades for their brilliance. Before she was contacted to make this speech, her book The Left Hand of Darkness (about a totally androgynous society on the planet Gethen) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and really put her on the map as one of the first, and best, feminist science-fiction novelists of all time.

Although, be careful, try not to slap labels on her or her work that restrict who she is and what she writes, as that tends to make her a bit prickly. She famously said:

"Don't shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don't fit, because I'm all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions." (Source)

(Pro tip: don't mess with a genius who also has tentacles.)

Le Guin's work is characterized by astute anthropological observations taken to the nth degree, which makes all of her stories fascinating (and slightly terrifying) but she peppers her worlds with a characteristic sense of humor that is, frankly, irresistible.

This irresistibility of hers made Le Guin's "Left-Handed Commencement Address" a graduation speech to top all others. Since it was given, countless people have undoubtedly tried to capture her style, her passion, and her ability to poetically capture a political statement. (And they probably failed.)

So check out her Left-Handed Commencement Address. It's definitely not your run-of-the-mill, graduation speech snooze-fest.

What is A Left-Handed Commencement Address About and Why Should I Care?

Because you care about women.

Feminism is a thorny concept these days. There is a whole spectrum of opinion: from people who think it's a totally necessary mindset to those who think it's everything that's wrong with society.

And it's not just discussed among academics and online misogynists, either: if you pick up a tabloid or watch any kind of news, celebrities are constantly being asked whether they're feminist or not. Emma Watson—otherwise known as the impeccable Hermione Granger—has been an outspoken feminist advocate, who insists that the word "feminism" has gotten an unfairly bad rap. In 2014 she gave a scathing speech to the U.N. about how feminism needs to be something that everyone cares about…because gender equality goes both ways. (Source)

If you check out the World Economic Forum's report on gender inequality (we know, it sounds kinda dry, but they break it down into bite-size, digestible factoids) the status of equality between women and men worldwide is still pretty sad.

For example, in 2015, the forum reported that women were, on average, only earning the same amount as men from ten years ago (which is significantly less than what they're earning now). And that's despite the fact that women now make up the majority of people earning a higher education—because women only make up the majority of skilled workers in sixty-eight countries across the globe.

So, even though they may be better educated, they're not able to find jobs to use their skills. What a waste.

You may be justifying these stats to yourself, thinking that countries that haven't developed the just and equal systems we have in the United States bring down the averages. Au contraire, mon frère.

That same report shows that women in the US do almost twice as much unpaid work per day as men do (about four hours, compared to 2.6). And let's not even get into the disparities in our government, in which the US ranks near the bottom in terms of female political empowerment. That's a really, really big problem for women, especially when issues like healthcare become front and center in political arenas.

This just shows what a big deal this issue still is, even though people like Ursula Le Guin have been talking about it for decades. The subjects are roughly the same: equal pay for equal work, the right to control healthcare decisions, and societal discrimination issues bind Le Guin's and Watson's speeches profoundly.

So why should you care about feminism? Because even though our world looks a lot different than it did in 1983—hairstyles have changed (mullets are now ironic), fashion has grown up (stirrup pants are pretty much done), the Cold War has ended, and our PAC-Man is no longer the cutting edge of technology—we're still are somehow stuck in the same rut when it comes to gender equality.

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Resources

Websites

Le Guin Is Hysterically Funny, and Scarily Smart
Read about her opinions on whether amoebas or humans have better sex. (Don't worry, it's not that graphic. But it's part of her musings on communication and literature, and it's unreal.)

Gotta Link Her Official Site
Containing everything but her kitchen sink, this website has anything and everything Le Guin.

Prolific Doesn't Even Begin to Describe Her
Links out to many, many different video and audio clips of Le Guin's various public addresses.

Movie or TV Productions

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
This documentary, a film that has taken years to get off the ground, is to be completed in 2017.

Articles and Interviews

The Boston Globe Tries to Briefly Capture the Spirit of Le Guin
…which is really hard to do. But this is a good quick bio of the amazing woman.

Review of A Review Of Ursula Le Guin
An academic review of a book written about Le Guin's feminist qualities.

Le Guin on Science Fiction
This particularly fun essay on the reason for Science Fiction is enthralling.

Nobody Puts Ursula In A Pigeonhole
Awesome interview in the Paris Review that examines her influences, her thoughts on genre, and a few hilarious comments.

Video

Neil Gaiman Presents Lifetime Achievement Award to Le Guin
...and couldn't be funnier.

Audio

When Le Guin Got the Giggle-Fits
Listening to these two friends debate literary topics is a must-listen. Our favorite part is when Le Guin can't stop giggling uncontrollably at Atwood's description of the act of writing as a boudoir.

Her Ideas Come from Schenectady
Okay, not really. But here's another podcast with the highly entertaining lady about where she gets her ideas from.

Images

Most Common Publicity Photo
Doesn't she look like someone you'd like to share a cup of coffee with?

This Woman Knows Things
Look at that gleam in her eye.

Apparently, She's Been Rockin' The Same Hairstyle for Decades
...not that there's anything wrong with that.

Nice.
'Nuff said.