In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” In it, there is a famous passage known as “The Man in the Arena.” I have always loved the passage and will never forget the first time I read the lines aloud in class at the request of my 10th grade U.S. history teacher, Mr. McKenzie. For many years, I kept the lines tucked into my wallet. I’d like to read the passage to you, and given the present company, I have taken the liberty of changing the man in the arena to a woman:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the [one] who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Over the last several months, I found these lines calling me back home to myself in a time of great turmoil and upheaval. I wondered why the lines resonated with me as powerfully today as they did when I was 16 years old. And the only honest answer I could muster was that, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I was 16, I knew that I wanted to make a difference. I knew that I wanted to care about something so much that I was willing to shed blood, sweat, and tears in service of a worthy cause. I knew that I didn’t want to be the timid soul who critiqued from a safe distance. I wanted to be a woman in the arena.
The reason I believe in girls’ schools—and the reason I believe in The Hewitt School in particular—is because we aren’t just teaching girls and young women foundational knowledge in academic disciplines; we are teaching girls and young women to develop the courage, skills, tenacity, and perseverance required to get off of the sidelines and get into the arena. And this requires us to get out of the “play it safe” mindset of chasing credentials and face our fears in order to challenge the status quo and make a difference.
In spite of the “girl power” messages so abundant in popular culture today, being an actual woman in the arena is still much harder than it looks. Before girls become women, we are taught from a very early age to please others and care a great deal about what people think of us. Please don’t misunderstand me: knowing how others perceive us is important and, if kept in balance, can be a powerful leadership trait. It keeps us connected to the people we are leading.
But if we as girls and women care too much about what others think of us, then we give too much credit to the critic, and that can paralyze us and even cut us off from our roots and our values system, which is our true source of power. The fact of the matter is that leadership is hard, making tough and unpopular decisions is hard, and the issues at stake are always so much more complex than most people take the time to realize. As professor and author Brené Brown says of the lines by Teddy Roosevelt:
“A lot of...seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is that when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your own [butt] kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
So my message to our seniors from the Class of 2020 is: get into the arena. There is so much urgent and important work to be done, so many opportunities to make a difference. The arena will be different for each of you. But whatever you do, get into the arena. And know that when you do, and your critics judge you, take enough of it in so that it allows you to grow, but be selective about the feedback you let into your life, so that you preserve the courage to continue showing up. If you are living by your values, if you are helping others, if you are making something better, if you are putting in a good faith effort to be in service of a worthy cause (indeed, even if at times the effort comes at a personal cost to you), then you will have done justice to the education this school has given you, because you will have put that education to work in the service of forging a better world. And this world needs you.
So Class of 2020: get into the arena, and when your critics get the best of you, when your faith and courage are put to the test, when you stumble, and when you fall, then remember this: lean on one another, lift each other up, and get back into the arena. For that, in the end, is what the sisterhood is really about.
Dr. Kinsey delivered these remarks on August 7, 2020 at a graduation ceremony for the Hewitt Class of 2020.