Valedictory Speech, 1916

by Eleanor Gottheil '16
May 13, 1916

Tonight we graduate. The opportunities presented to us are many and new; how many, and how new we can hardly realize, for we have an outlook different from that of previous classes. This is a time of great change, a crisis in the affairs of women. The great European war, besides the slaughter of the fighting men, is making a stupendous change in the lives of women.

It is an old idea that war makes a demand on women for sufferings, but it is a new idea that women must not only suffer, but serve. In days of old, if women wished to aid their country, they went into the field and fought, and many are the tales of Deborah, Boadicia, and Jeanne d'Arc. But the world is not in that stage of evolution now, and the work of women of today is very different. The first woman to attempt the relief work now so extensively carried on throughout the war zones was Florence Nightingale, but the movement which she lead was only part of a large whole, the woman's movement towards active national service.

The war has not only shown this to be a success, but it has brought about new opportunities, without number, for women to prove themselves useful and efficient. One of the opportunities has been the need for intelligent executive heads for the many organizations for war relief. These organizations, conceived, officered, and carried on by women, have proved blessings in every war zone and every stricken country of Europe. Their purposes range from trade schools for blinded or crippled soldiers, to hospitals equipped with women doctors, nurse and orderlies. Patriotic these women are, and with a large patriotism, for they strive not to destroy, but to build up; not to bring suffering but to relieve it. Whatever their nationality, these women are all working together to save something of civilization from the wreck, and in this very work, they are proving that women as organizers and executives are not the ineffectual, inefficient individuals many have considered them.

Women have not only been holding responsible positions, they have also been doing much of the actual work formerly done by men. One of the greatest difficulties brought about by the war was the shortage of agricultural workers. In Germany, the brave peasant women, with farmers and farm horses taken away, have done the work of man and beast. In France and England the leaders among the women have established headquarters for training in farm work, and this summer the harvest will be gathered in by skillful workers who are eager to make the most of their new positions.

The factories also, once the workshops of thousands of brawny men are now filled with young girls and women, who, with relatives at the front, appreciate to the full the urgency of their labours. These women patriots, not being able to fight, do not waste their time sorrowing at home and talking peace. A hundred thousand of them, in the belligerent countries, have gone to work in the munition factories. The women of England alone have doubled the output of munitions for their army.

Besides these important industries, the women of the fighting nations have been replacing men in all the ordinary phases of commercial life. Morning trains, which formerly disgorged men at the terminals, now bring equally large crowds of women to business. Indeed a stranger walking thru the business quarter of London, Paris or Berlin might well think himself in the women's Utopia. In the busy thoroughfares, he would see District Messenger girls in trim blue uniforms, women drivers of trucks and taxicabs, women conductors on local street cars. In the theatre he would watch women taking male parts, because the actors are at the front, and in the shopping district he would find nothing but women as tradesmen of all sorts. Especially in the small French cities, each wife or mother or daughter strives to carry on the business of her own departed soldier, and take his place as nearly as possible. Madam keeps the tailor shop till Monsieur the tailor shall come home again, although she knows little of tailoring, and nobody wants any clothes. Still the little shop is kept open, if only to show bravely the cheerful face which every French woman has assumed.

Gradually, the world must realize the service that women are doing, must realize that the countries would have been unable to go on without starvation had the women remained quietly at home during the struggle.

All these new opportunities for women are not being wasted. The women who are filling them are earnest and intelligent, and in almost all occupations have been as efficient as men. There is really no reason why women should not hold all positions which do not require great physical strength save that many of these have always been considered as belonging to men. That this convention no longer holds has been proved by the women workers during the present war.

The wonderful work of these women cannot be overestimated, for by their activities, strange though they may be to the usages of modern business and society, the countries of Europe have been able to do more than merely exist. Gradually, the world must realize the service that women are doing, must realize that the countries would have been unable to go on without starvation had the women remained quietly at home during the struggle. The fact that women have proved so valuable in the new fields is enough to do away forever with the old worn out ideas that the business woman is superfluous. Furthermore, the extent to which women have been used in organizing, and helping to organize various relief services, must affect public opinion as to their efficiency. After the war, when the crippled remainder returns from the front, the women of Europe must still help to carry on the work. The woman trained by this war, the woman who not only manages her own home, but does something either toward relieving suffering or making for greater efficiency in all walks of life - that woman has come to stay.

It is not only in the stricken countries of Europe that work offers itself, in America also, opportunities are arising everywhere for the girl who earnestly and sincerely desires to be a useful woman. After the war, there will surely be still greater changes and more opportunities. It is true, however, that already there have been women who have stood forth by the work they have accomplished. We, throughout our school life have had the example of Miss Jacobi before us. Miss Jacobi also has been a pioneer among women workers; she has shown by her services, by the school which she has built up, how truly the useful woman can be a blessing to those about her. We deeply regret that she is no longer our principal, but she leaves the great good she has accomplished and this school of ours as memorials of her life's work.

Classmates, now that we are to say goodbye to the school, now that we have learned its lessons and finished its tasks, let us be faithful to our training and with the noble work of European women as an example before us, be true representatives of the woman who is useful to the world.

Eleanor Gottheil's valedictory speech and photo were among the graduation souvenirs saved in the scrapbook of classmate Margery Katz '16. The scrapbook was discovered at a flea market in Manhattan in the spring of 2006 — exactly 100 years after the event — by a history buff, who was kind enough to donate the book to the school archives.

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