Ursula K. Le Guin, A Left-Handed Commencement Address, 1983

Ursula K. Le Guin


When the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin delivered ‘A Left-Handed Commencement Address’ to the all-female graduates of Mills College, in the Bay Area, in 1983, she did so in what she called ‘the language of women’. She began by acknowledging that commencements often assume a male audience. She noted dryly that graduation gowns, originally designed for men, make women look like either a ‘mushroom or a pregnant stork’. ‘Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is men’s language,’ she said.

Le Guin – whose famous 1969 sci-fi novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, takes place on a planet populated by individuals without a fixed gender – did not want to communicate on those terms. She did not want to discuss success (‘Success is somebody else’s failure’) or power, which she saw as belonging to a male tradition. She wishes the graduates children, if they want them, and turns her talk towards a radical rejection of patriarchal society (dubbed ‘Machoman’). Le Guin encourages her audience to embrace failure, and to live as natives in a country of women. She muses: ‘Instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public?’

A Left-Handed Commencement Address 1983

(See full text: here)

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.

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.

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. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own….

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…. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it … we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.

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…. 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. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there…. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

What hope we have lies there…. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

Ursula K. Le Guin