Toni Morrison: ‘I Am Alarmed By the Willlingness of Women to Enslave Other Women.’

‘Cinderella’s Stepsisters,’ her poignant commencement address to the Barnard Class of 1979, is just as insightful today as it was 40 years ago

ZORA Editors
Published in
8 min readAug 7, 2019


Toni Morrison speaking at her commencement address to the Barnard Class of 1979.
Photo courtesy of Rochelle Ritchie/Barnard College Office of News and Strategic Communications

In this compelling speech by the late icon, Morrison reminds us that as women, we hold the fate of humanity in our hands. And that, because of this, the last thing we should do is turn on one another. Lifting up a sister as a matter of nurturing and care does not show our weakness, but rather our strength. May we all take a lesson from the words she uttered 40 years ago that still have resonance in the 21st century.

LLet me begin by taking you back a little. Back before the days at Barnard. Indeed to the days before secondary school and even elementary school. To nursery school, probably, to a once-upon-a-time time you first heard, or read, or, I suspect, even saw Cinderella. Because it is Cinderella that I want to talk about; because it is Cinderella who causes me this feeling of urgency.

Like most fairy tales it is peculiar, but, unlike most of them, it may also be dangerous. Not the “virtue will triumph” part of it (it may very well be that virtue does triumph, but I am not all sure that that is what virtue is for). Not even the nature of the triumph: handsome devoted prince plus castle in perpetuity.

What is unsettling about it is that the story is essentially the story of a household, a world, if you please, of women. Of women gathered to abuse another woman. There is, of course, a vague rather absent father and a nick-of-time prince with a foot fetish. But neither has much personality. The real fireworks don’t concern the men, and do not take place among or between them. The surrogate “mothers” (god- and step-) contribute to Cinderella’s grief and to her release and happiness.

But it is her stepsisters who interest me. How crippling it must have been for those young girls to grow up with a mother, to watch and imitate that mother in the enslaving of another girl. How brutalized the sensibilities must be when you are encouraged, instructed, expected to live off the selfless labor of another woman. How poisonous to be forever in the company of a…