Study Guide

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Compare and Contrast

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Margaret Atwood

    Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin have been friends for many years, and it makes us wonder which came first: their friendship, or their remarkably similar views on feminism, life, and science fiction?

    Atwood, like Le Guin, also takes offence when her novels are labeled as science fiction, because she feels like that doesn't accurately portray what she does. Instead, she prefers the term "speculative fiction":

    Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen. (Atwood, 2003)

    In her press tour for her widely acclaimed Oryx and Crake (go read it, it's awesome), she got prickly (like another author we know…) about its designation within the sci-fi genre:

    Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. (Atwood, 2003)

    Sound familiar?

    The two authors also share a feminist worldview, even though Atwood is less accepting of the label than Le Guin. But call her a "humanist," and you've got yourself a deal.

  • Neil Gaiman

    You might be thinking, "Uhh, this guy writes comic books. What could he have in common with Ursula Le Guin?" Our answer: so much.

    Gaiman doesn't just write comic books, and Dr. Who episodes, and excellent novels that make you question reality. He writes books that could be considered speculative fiction (or science fiction, if we may be so bold), which are also surprisingly feminist.

    In fact, if you Google search "Neil Gaiman feminism" there are a ton of articles and scholarly papers dedicated to the fact that the guy is an avowed feminist. It comes so naturally to him that he finds the inability of some male authors to write strong female characters positively mind-boggling. (Source)

    This is no surprise, considering the fact that Le Guin has been a huge inspiration to him—both personally and professionally. He's been asked to present awards to her on several occasions, and he's even admitted that he openly copied one of Le Guin's ideas (although she pooh-poohs that concept right quick). (Source)

    If you love Le Guin's style of standing up for strong women combined with a natural story-telling ability, you should seriously check out some of Gaiman's works.

  • Gloria Steinem: "Living the Revolution" Speech

    In May of 1970, Gloria Steinem gave a commencement address to the graduating class of Vassar, and the similarities between her speech and the one Le Guin delivers thirteen years later are many.

    Called the "Living the Revolution" speech, Steinem outlines many of the same complaints that Le Guin does. She discusses the problems with history and education always being tied to the white, male, patriarchy. She also advocates for the new Second Wave movement, in which feminism is tied to the "softer" sides of humanity, like embracing peace, love, and nurturing. She bemoans success always having been defined as a masculine concept, and beseeches her listeners to reach for their own brand of accomplishment.

    Seriously, you'll get goose bumps when you compare her speech to Le Guin's Left-Handed Address. Check it out here.

  • President Ronald Reagan: Address at Commencement Exercises at Eureka College

    Only a year before Le Guin gave her historic commencement address, Ronald Reagan spoke to the graduates of another small school, his alma mater Eureka College. (Source)

    In his address, Reagan focused on his political goals for dealing with the "problem" of Soviet Russia, and other means of guaranteeing peace for our nation. It's a great speech: it's clear, concise, and has just the right amount of jokes to keep the graduates entertained.

    It's fascinating, though, to compare his address with Le Guin's, because they could not be more different. Their tone, their style, and most importantly, the concepts they consider crucial to improving American society are incredibly dissimilar. Maybe it's because Le Guin was speaking in public in the language of women?

  • bell hooks (a.k.a. Gloria Jean Watkins)

    Just as Gloria Steinem's name is synonymous with the Second-Wave, bell hooks (yup: all lowercase) is one of the leading figures in the Third Wave of Feminism. Long a controversial figure due to her tendency to say what needs to be said (and not what people want to hear), hooks has nonetheless been a staunch advocate for women's rights, and particularly those of African-American descent.

    It's fascinating, though, to compare her to Le Guin's brand of feminism, which tends to embrace a calmer, more peaceful rhetoric. For example, when hooks was asked to address Southwestern University's graduating class in 2002, her speech drew a ton of negative press due to her aggressive stance against the "capitalist patriarchy:"

    Every imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation on the planet teaches its citizens to care more for tomorrow than today…And the moment we do this, we are seduced by the lure of death…To live fixated on the future is to engage in psychological denial. It is a form of psychic violence that prepares us to accept the violence needed to ensure the maintenance of imperialist, future-oriented society. (Source)

    Whoa. Granted, this speech was delivered in the height of America's emotional response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, but even taken completely out of context you can see that her style is very confrontational, and much angrier than Le Guin's.

    Now compare it to the end of the Left-Handed Address:

    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. (68)

    Just because Le Guin found a kinder, gentler way to advocate for her cause, it doesn't negate the value of bell hooks' contributions to the feminist cause. She's definitely a fascinating individual to look into.

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