Greetings to President Beilock, Provost, Dean, Barnard faculty, trustees, and honorees Katherine Johnson, Anna Quindlen, and Rhea Suh. And to each of the 619 badass women of the Barnard graduating class of 2018: Congratulations, you guys, congratulations!
Doesn’t it feel like the second you figure anything out in life, it ends and you’re forced to start all over again? Experts call these times of life, “transitions.” I call them terrifying. I went through a terrifying transition recently when I retired from soccer.
The world tries to distract us from our fear during these transitions by creating fancy ceremonies for us. This is your fancy ceremony. Mine was the ESPYs, a nationally televised sports award show. I had to get dressed up for that, just like you got dressed up for this. But they sent me a really expensive fancy stylist. It doesn’t look like you guys got one. Sorry about that.
So it went like this: ESPN called and told me they were going to honor me with their inaugural icon award. I was humbled, of course, to be regarded as an icon. Did I mention that I’m an icon?
I received my award along with two other incredible athletes: basketball’s Kobe Bryant and football’s Peyton Manning. We all stood on stage together and watched the highlights of our careers with the cameras rolling and the fans cheering, and I looked around and had a moment of awe. I felt so grateful to be there, included in the company of Kobe and Peyton. I had a momentary feeling of having arrived — like we women had finally made it.
Then the applause ended and it was time for the three of us to exit stage left. And as I watched those men walk off the stage, it dawned on me that the three of us were stepping into very different futures.
Each of us, Kobe, Peyton and I — we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood sweat and tears, we’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment. But our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that, they had something else I didn’t have: freedom. Their hustling days were over, and mine were just beginning.
Later that night, back in my hotel room, I laid in bed and thought: this isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about soccer. We talk a lot about the pay gap. We talk about how, overall, U.S. women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. Black women in America earn 63 cents, while Latinas earn 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white men. What we need to talk about more is the aggregate and compounding effects of the pay gap on women’s lives. Over time, the pay gap means women are able to invest less and save less, so they have to work longer. When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, lets be clear: it costs us our very lives.
And it hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYs stage. Just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us. But as you know, women of Barnard, change is here. Women are learning that we can be grateful for what we have and also demand what we deserve.
Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood. You know the fairy tale. It’s just one iteration of the warning stories girls are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods and is given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your head down hidden underneath your Handmaid’s Tale cape.
And she does…at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s, of course, when she encounters the big bad wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or bad things will happen. I stayed on the path out of fear—not of being eaten by a wolf—but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this: “Abby, You were never Little Red Riding Hood, you were always the wolf.”
So when I was entrusted with the honor of speaking here today, I decided that the most important thing for me to say to you, is this: Barnard women, class of 2018, we are the wolves.
In 1995, around the year of your birth, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after being absent for 70 years. In those years, the number of deer had skyrocketed because they were unchallenged, alone at the top of the food chain. They grazed away and reduced the vegetation, so much that the riverbanks were eroding.
Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer through hunting. But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer. Wisely, the deer started avoiding the valleys and the vegetation in those places regenerated. Trees quintupled in just six years. Birds and beavers started moving in. The river dams the beavers built provided habitats for otters and ducks and fish. The animal ecosystem regenerated. But that wasn’t all. The rivers actually changed as well. The plant regeneration stabilized the riverbanks so they stopped collapsing. The rivers steadied — all because of the wolves’ presence.
See what happened here? The wolves — who were feared as a threat to the system — turned out to be its salvation. Barnard Women, are y’all picking up what I’m laying down here? Women are feared as a threat to our system — and we will also be our salvation.
Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the “other,” about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless. And these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We will not Little Red Riding hood our way through life. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together and change the whole bloody system.
Throughout my life, my pack has been my team. Teams need a unifying structure, and the best way to create one collective heartbeat is to establish rules for your team to live by. It doesn’t matter what specific page you’re all on, just as long as you’re all on the same one.
Here are four rules I’ve used to unite my pack and lead them to gold: