Study Guide

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Quotes

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Power

    This is a man's world, so it talks a man's language. The words are all words of power. (11-12)

    Not only are they words of power, but the fact that man's language is the dominant tongue gives them even more power. #deep

    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? (15-17)

    She's not saying women can't speak of power (we all know some powerful women), but she's saying maybe our culture needs to gain different priorities. Maybe the traits that have long been allocated to the "fairer sex" deserve their time in the limelight to provide a sense of balance in our society. But first, it'll sound really weird to everyone who has been raised in the status quo.

    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. (33-37)

    Ultimately – we are powerless. Despite striving for accomplishment, the very nature of human beings means we will experience disappointment and failure…but that's a good thing, according to Le Guin. Embrace failure. Embrace the dark places, and learn how to be whole there. Come to the dark side, Luke.

    I'm not talking about sex; that's a whole other universe, where man and woman are on their own. I'm talking about society, the so-called man's world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. (43-44)

    Don't you think it's interesting that Le Guin doesn't want to talk about sex, in a speech where gender differences are prevalent? Maybe she thought that'd be going down too much of a different path. (Or maybe she had a strict time limit. Who knows?) Regardless, a discussion of sex, power, and gender differences could've gotten pretty heated.

    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. (57-58)

    If women can't be doctors, or soldiers, or leaders, then it's much, much harder to have power in a society that values all those things. By excluding them, they are being systematically oppressed by their own culture. Le Guin is fed up with the current situation, and thinks that women need to find their own way to gain their own type of power.

    I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. (67)

    That's, uhh… gonna be tough. Even Le Guin admits that our society is built on a power hierarchy, so you're either above or below somebody… right?

  • Women and Femininity

    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. (40-41)

    Language is a powerful tool, and when you use the word "man" to describe all of humanity, it's pretty exclusionary, isn't it? Have you ever thought of it in that way? Sometimes even things that seem innocuous (like using a gendered word for encapsulating a group) can, over time, become harmful with a pervasive message about acceptance.

    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. (45-47)

    Do you think Le Guin is exaggerating the differences between men and women, here? Can women succeed in a man's world without losing the traits that make them feminine?

    So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for 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? (48-53)

    Basically, Le Guin is saying that women need to develop their own set of rules by which to gauge the measures of success. That way, they'd be playing their own game, on their own terms. Do you think women have managed to do that—to any degree—since she gave this speech in '83?

    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. (56)

    That's a rather poetic way of saying that women feel all the feels. What makes that a bad thing? Why would men despise women for living that side 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. (57)

    Do you think this is still true? Are some careers—especially those imbued with power—unofficially off-limits to women? What effect do you think this has, for both men and women? Or, are women drawn to those jobs because they're better suited to their nature?

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    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? (17)

    So… she doesn't hope that the new graduates go on to lead successful, fulfilling lives? Maybe we should keep reading…

    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. (20-24)

    Reality check, courtesy of Ursula K. Le Guin. Not everyone is lucky enough to have those things, and she's simply wishing them a life filled with happiness. Perhaps being happy is the ultimate 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. (28-32)

    That's a pretty pivotal statement: "success is somebody else's failure." Is it possible to succeed without that being true? Knowing what we do about the rest of the speech, is Le Guin suggesting that experiencing failure would lead to succeeding? (And is this like a "which came first: the chicken or the egg" type thing?)

    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. (38-39)

    She's not really advocating for people to be miserable, although reading this sentence on its own could lead you to believe that. But when she continues later on towards the end of the speech, she clarifies that the "dark place" is where souls are grown. So, basically, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

    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. (63-68)

    TL/DR: She hopes that women will embrace whatever role they've chosen for themselves, and be good at what they do while they earn equal pay as their male counterparts. She wants them to find a way to live their lives without being victims or despots, and always remember that they are strong because they are women. Got it.

  • Men and Masculinity

    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. (4-5)

    Would you say this is as true today as it was in 1983? We still wear the unflattering robes, but is it due to an unspoken misogynistic agreement, or just an unhealthy attachment to tradition?

    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. (6-11)

    What do you think about this quote? Do women have to learn how to speak like men in order to publicly express themselves? Are there examples from the present day that might support this claim?

    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. (41)

    Do you think men did this on purpose, or is this just a sad reflection of the status quo? Le Guin is insinuating the former, and she almost makes it sound like a vast conspiracy to oppress women. For a woman in 1983, this probably felt like that was the case.

    I'm talking about society, the so-called man's world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. (44)

    Le Guin was known for her "brand" of feminism, which argued that women were inherently the more peaceful of the two genders. She often argued that if women had the run of the world, there would be far less aggression and violence. What do you think? Are these aspects of society a male problem, or a universal one?

    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. (54-55)

    This is still a common complaint, that men can't handle emotional responses. Think of every sitcom or movie you've seen where a woman crying was enough to make her male counterpart panic. Some people argue that it's a result of societal pressures; that men are raised to ignore their emotions and are thus incapable of understanding or expressing them. Here, Le Guin is saying that the reason emotions are seen as a largely negative response is because men are afraid of them.

  • Language and Communication

    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. (1)

    Somewhere, sitting alone in a room filled with ancient computers and monitors, there was a lone man sitting at the controls doing a spit-take and exclaiming, "Oh @#%*! We let one get through!"

    There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, "If you don't understand Greek, please signify by nodding." (3)

    We thought this was a really interesting parable. There's no winning, here: the guy might nod because he doesn't understand Greek, (in which case, how does he know to nod??) or he might nod because he doesn't understand they're telling him to nod, it's just a natural gesture of confusion. It's a real head-scratcher, but it certainly highlights the importance of proper communication skills.

    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. (7-11)

    Other than knowing context, can you tell the gender of public speakers based on their words alone? And, according to Le Guin, how would you then classify their words as masculine ones?

    Maybe we've had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. (15-16)

    She goes on to say that using "words of weakness" will be talking like a woman in public, and that it'll sound all wrong. But her "words of weakness" involve wishing that the graduates go on to have children—if they want them. How are those 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. (17-19)

    So, using her argument, women don't speak about power or success. Do you find this to be true? Are there gendered conversational topics?