Obama to Barnard: "Fight for your seat at the head of the table"

resident Barack Obama acknowledges applause after delivering the commencement address to graduates at all-female Barnard College, on the campus of Columbia University, in New York, Monday, May 14, 2012. Barnard was the first college in New York City where women could receive the same liberal arts education available to men.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
President Barack Obama acknowledges applause after delivering the commencement address to graduates at all-female Barnard College, on the campus of Columbia University, in New York, Monday, May 14, 2012.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

(CBS News) Speaking to Barnard University's graduating class on Monday, President Obama challenged the young women to persevere in the fight for equality through leadership, touting a pro-woman message and emphasizing his hopes that today's young women "will help lead the way" for change in America.

Mr. Obama delivered impassioned advice to the graduating class of 594 women, urging them to fight for change and serve as examples to each other, and emphasizing the importance of perseverance in the process.

"Don't just get involved," said Mr. Obama, dressed in a powder blue robe. "Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table."

The president's also remarks served as an opportunity for the president to reiterate - and hone - his message to young women voters during an election year in which women's issues have featured prominently.

Invoking examples from both his upbringing and American history, Mr. Obama pointed to challenges women have historically faced in achieving equality, and called on the next generation of young women not only to "point out injustice" but also "hold the system accountable" and "upend it entirely" if necessary.

"Don't accept somebody else's construction of the way things ought to be. It's up to you to right wrongs," Mr. Obama said. "Whether it's starting a business or running for office or raising an amazing family, remember that making your mark on the world is hard. It takes patience. It takes commitment. It comes with plenty of setbacks, and it comes with plenty of failures."

He continued: "The trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope, young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves. They did it for other people. That's how we achieve women's rights."

Mr. Obama argued that America's problems are "eminently solvable" but that people must "muster the will in our own lives, in our common institutions, in our politics, to bring about the changes we need."

"I'm convinced your generation possesses that will. And I believe that the women of this generation, that all of you will help lead the way," Mr. Obama said.

The president told the students that he would join them "every step of the way" if they were ready to fight for what he described as "that brilliant, radically simple idea of America, that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what god you worship, you can still pursue your own happiness."

Directly prior to Mr. Obama's speech, Evan Wolfson, the President of Freedom to Marry, was awarded a Barnard Medal of Distinction. Mr. Obama publicly voiced support in favor of same-sex marriage last week.

The president's re-election campaign, as well as Democrats in the House and Senate, have made a strong pitch to women voters ahead of November's elections, particularly amid ongoing debates related to contraception, abortion rights and women's health care in general.

As commencement season kicks off, various members of the Obama administration are poised to take the president's message directly to young voters, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, all of whom are scheduled to address graduating students. Mr. Obama's decision to speak at Barnard - he requested the gig, displacing New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who was originally slated to speak -- marks an apparent effort to reach out to young women specifically.

Most polls show Mr. Obama with a strong advantage with women voters over presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the polls. According to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of swing states from earlier this month, women favor Mr. Obama 50 to 42 percent. http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-05-06/obama-romney-gender-gap/54796050/1

Mr. Obama graduated from Columbia University, which is affiliated with Barnard, in 1983. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, graduated from Barnard. Columbia did not start accepting women applicants until 1983.