Politics

From the Archives | January 12, 1993

Hillary: The Wellesley years

The woman who will live in the White House was a sharp-witted activist in the class of ‘69

Hillary Clinton as a Wellesley College senior in 1968.
John M. Hurley
Hillary Clinton as a Wellesley College senior in 1968.

This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on January 12, 1993.

It was too much for Hillary Rodham to take. Here was the speaker at her Wellesley College commencement -- US Sen. Edward W. Brooke -- addressing the 401 seniors who had come of age during the trauma of Vietnam, the civil rights struggles, the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But rather than offering a thoughtful analysis of the times, Brooke glossed over the issues that so troubled these young women. And Hillary Rodham would not tolerate it. She had been chosen as the first graduating senior in Wellesley history to speak at commencement, and she had spent weeks preparing for this moment.

When she rose to the platform and said she wanted to respond to some of Brooke’s points, there was a palpable stiffening among parents. Undaunted, Hillary Rodham proceeded, in a performance her classmates say they will never forget, to deliver an extemporaneous rebuttal of Brooke. It was not so much her words -- for they seem mild in retrospect -- as it was the fact that in 1969 she dared to challenge a sitting United States senator.

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“We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible,” she said. “And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”

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Some parents and administrators were appalled by her comments, but Rodham’s classmates -- awed by her poise, delighted with her message -- greeted the speech with sustained applause, enveloping her in a thunderous, seven-minute standing ovation.

The young women clapping and cheering and smiling in the May sunshine knew that Rodham’s words had come from the heart; that this had not been some petulant act of self-indulgence. For these women knew Hillary Diane Rodham well.

Black students and white students, conservatives, liberals, moderates, they all knew her and most had voted for her for one class office or another through the years. They knew her as a leader and campus activist; as president of Wellesley Young Republicans who, through the chaos of the late ‘60s, evolved into a liberal Democrat.

They knew her as disciplined and intensely focused; as a woman who was more cerebral than emotional, who was not given to frivolous chatter about boyfriends or weekend plans. It was true, they knew, that she could be pointed, even impatient, but these bright young women also knew her as one of the more facile minds on campus, as a person who had never lacked for self- esteem.

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They knew her for her Coke-bottle-thick glasses, her ponytail, her Navy blue pea jacket, big boots and brightly colored pants with a green bookbag slung over her shoulder. They knew her for her eyes, wide and bright, and for the energy she exuded.

And they knew her as a pragmatic leader who seemingly got along with everybody, shunning extremism for moderation and communicating well with the faculty and administration, with disparate student groups from social clubs to Students for a Democratic Society.

Her classmates will tell you that over time, Rodham has refined her style and explored new issues, and has been cosmetically transformed. But they will also tell you that the Hillary Clinton who will enter the White House in eight days as the single most influential adviser to the new president and as a woman certain to leave her mark on the nation is essentially the same individual with the same character, political style and outlook as the 21- year-old who challenged Brooke.

Close friends and classmates from Wellesley will tell you that to know and understand Hillary Rodham then is to know and understand Hillary Clinton of today.

A HIGH SCHOOL SUPERSTAR

She arrived at Wellesley in the fall of 1965 from the affluent Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, where, at the town’s public high school, she had been a superstar. Dorothy Rodham recalls that she and her husband, Hugh, the owner of a small textile business, were almost embarrassed at their daughter’s high school graduation when she made repeated trips to the stage to accept one award after another -- from National Merit Scholar finalist to National Honor Society.

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“Hillary was always interested in being competitive,” says her mother in a telephone interview from her home in Little Rock. “But she also never put anybody else down or was mean-spirited. She just simply was better in a lot of ways.

“She was always a very sensible person, even as a little girl. When she was very young -- 3 or 4 -- she was always assessing situations. If I was trying to explain something to her, a lesson of life, you could see her thinking. She was quite a tomboy. There were 40 or 50 children in our neighborhood and she played with boys, rough and tumble, but she never got hurt.

“She was always the leader. The other kids looked up to her for ideas for games. She was always in the forefront of this gang of kids. There were more boys than girls and she was able to work with and be a leader with the boys, too.”

Dorothy Rodham speaks with certainty when she declares: “Hillary has never had a self-esteem problem. Ever.”

But her parents also sought to make sure her head didn’t swell. Dorothy Rodham says that term after term, year after year, Hillary would bring home all A’s, and Hugh Rodham would needle his daughter, saying, “ ‘You must go to an easy school.’ It took a lot to impress him.”

Hillary applied to Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith and Wellesley, says Dorothy Rodham, and was admitted to all of them. She chose Wellesley in part because a high school teacher she particularly admired had gone there, but also because she believed strongly in the merits of single-sex education.

When Rodham arrived on campus, Wellesley seemed something out of the Victorian age. In her freshman year, the Wellesley News characterized a Time magazine article on the college as having “described Wellesley students as a breed of wholesome creatures, unencumbered by the world’s woes, whose education and personalities destined them to the inspiring life of a ‘well- adjusted housewife.’ “

“Ring by spring!” was the determined cry of dozens of marriage-minded Wellesley seniors. Back then, “girls” were required to don a skirt for dinner, encouraged to take Thursday afternoon tea and prohibited from having male visitors in their rooms except on Sunday, and then from 2 to 5 p.m. only.

Students’ rooms were regularly inspected, and they were allowed to stay out on dates until midnight or 1 o’clock on a limited number of nights per semester. Freshmen were issued beanies and told of Wellesley lore that the winner of the hoop-rolling contest senior year would be the first class member to marry.

But during the years that Rodham’s class would spend on campus, Wellesley would change -- with Rodham as a key player in the process -- more than it had in decades. The world would change, too, as a women’s movement with profound implications for Rodham and her classmates would erupt.

“We were really on the cusp,” recalls Betty Demy Hutcheon, a classmate. ‘‘We were in that pivotal place between the old way and the new way. We were trailblazers.”

YOUNG REPUBLICAN LEADER

Hillary Rodham plunged immediately into campus activism, winning election to the presidency of the college Young Republicans in her freshman year. She called herself a “Goldwater girl” who, as a high school student in 1964, had passed out literature for conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

“She started off as a lot of us did as fairly typical daughters of fairly well-to-do families from Republican suburbs,” says Kris Olson Rogers, a classmate who was also politically active at Wellesley and who is now a law professor.

“I don’t think Hillary was ever really conservative except in a fiscal sense,” says her mother. “Her father was extremely conservative in that area.”

Rodham proselytized for the GOP early on, according to a March 1966 article in the Wellesley News. She presided over a panel discussion on the topic of “why be a Republican?” And in the fall of her sophomore year, a News story quotes Rodham as urging fellow students to go to work for Republican candidates. “The girl who doesn’t want to go out and shake hands can type letters or do general office work,” she says. Ironically, the story states that Young Republicans were concentrating their efforts in support of then Massachusetts attorney general Edward Brooke, who was running for the US Senate.

She maintained her GOP connections even well after she had begun to gravitate toward the left. After her junior year -- during which she had campaigned for Democrat Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire -- she went to Washington as a summer intern, where she was assigned to work as a researcher for Republican House members. That summer of ‘68 she traveled to Miami as a volunteer for Nelson Rockefeller at the Republican convention that nominated Richard M. Nixon.

Dorothy Rodham says that even as a Republican and fiscal conservative, her daughter was driven by a desire for social justice.

The Rev. Don Jones, youth minister at the First Methodist Church of Park Ridge, recalls Rodham as among the most enthusiastic participants in a variety of activities including organizing baby-sitting brigades for migrant farm workers laboring nearby.

During her freshman year, she wrote a letter to Rev. Jones saying that she was “leaning left,” as she put it. The evidence of that, she wrote, was her delight at the election of liberal Republican John V. Lindsay as mayor of New York.

DEBATING AND DANCING

“That was a period when people just jumped on whatever ideological bus was going by,” says Nancy Gist, a classmate of Rodham’s at both Wellesley and Yale Law School who is now deputy chief counsel at the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel. “But with Hillary, there was a thoughtful and gradual evolution in her thinking.”

A critical part of her intellectual development occurred at Harvard, where, through her boyfriend, she engaged in an ongoing debate about the great issues of the day with a group of Harvard students. Rodham met Geoffrey Shields, a Harvard junior, early in her freshman year in 1965, and they dated for more than two years.

“I thought she was attractive, interesting to talk to and she was a good dancer,” recalls Shields, who was from a Chicago suburb 20 minutes from the Rodham home in Park Ridge.

“We spent a lot of time with small groups of friends, primarily my friends at Harvard, talking about political issues,” says Shields, who is now an attorney at a major Chicago law firm. “One of my roommates was very active in racial matters. He was a black guy, and we spent a fair amount of time

discussing integration issues. For both Hillary and I it was a time of awakening.”

On dates, often at parties at Winthrop House where Shields lived, they would dance to Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes. She liked occasional Harvard football games, playing catch with a Frisbee or football, and she enjoyed hiking trips to the Cape or hiking in Vermont.

But he says that “the time when she seemed to light up the most was when there was a good interesting, heated debate about issues, particularly issues that had a practical impact on the world -- racial issues, the Vietnam War, civil rights, civil liberties.”

She showed little interest in more philosophic concerns -- in discussing literature or “philosophy in the abstract,” he says, “although I do remember an interesting conversation about whether there was an absolute or only a relative morality. She was very much into debating the basis for moral decisions -- whether they are relative within a particular time or circumstance or whether there are absolute moral principles. She was a relativist, at least then.”

There were similiar conversations at Wellesley. Classmate Jan Piercy recalls that often, after having breakfast and poring over The New York Times, Rodham and a group of women would engage in animated discussion. “The dining room would gradually empty out, and Hillary and others would carry on debates about issues, particularly civil rights and the war.”

Friends found that Hillary had researched topics in the news. “There could be an article in the Times on Khe Sanh and you could ask Hillary about it and find it was something she had studied very carefully,” says Eleanor Acheson, a Wellesley classmate who is now a lawyer at Ropes & Gray in Boston. “And she could give you a detailed explanation, a thorough overview of the entire thing.”

This was a kind of “wonk group,” recalls classmate Betsy Griffith, now headmistress of the Madeira School outside Washington. “This wasn’t gossip about boys, it was how to solve the problems of the world.”

A POWER AT WELLESLEY

Before straightening out the world, Rodham was determined to change Wellesley College. Though she cared passionately about larger problems of war, race and poverty, she was a pragmatist who knew that her greatest impact could be felt on campus working to change the college.

She did not shun the committee drudgery through which change was made, but embraced it, working on campus issues large and small. She pushed for a pass- fail grading option. She worked on a better system for returning library books. She supported increasing the number of black students and faculty members. She worked on changing parietal hours, and on reducing the number of required courses. She pushed for a summer Upward Bound program for inner-city kids on the Wellesley campus.

Wellesley not only offered Rodham an opportunity to effect change, it also offered her a chance to become an important figure on campus. “Recognition was important to her,” recalls Jeff Shields.

And at Wellesley, the ultimate recognition for a student was to be elected president of college government.

Virtually all of her activities were natural preparation for the job, and she took each step with at least a glance toward how it could help her rise.

As a freshman she was elected president of the Young Republicans club. As a sophomore she was elected a class representative to student government. As a junior she won a coveted position as a “Vil Junior.” Vil Juniors acted as counselors to freshmen and were chosen for their maturity and reliability. Only one Vil Junior was chosen in each dorm. Rodham was not only the Vil Junior for Davis, her dorm, she was also chosen as chairman of all Vil Juniors on campus.

“Hillary was quite careful about what to do next,” says Johanna Branson, now on the faculty at the Massachusetts College of Art. “She knew that she wanted to be involved in student government,” for example, “and Vil Juniors would connect her to younger students coming in.” It was good politics.

To suggest, however, that she was all business as she climbed the political ladder would be unfair. She was successful in part because she was just plain popular with other students. “She was certainly serious about the things she cared about,” says classmate Acheson, “but she was also very engaging, funny and quick.”

She would spend some time hanging out with friends in her pillow-filled room, listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Buffalo Springfield. ‘‘She has a playful, fun-loving side that was very important as an outlet to her more serious occupations,” says Piercy.

Rodham was one of three candidates to run for president of the student government. After the three debated for an hour at the Wellesley News, the paper chose not to endorse any candidate. “They each expressed a desire for greater student jurisdiction in social matters and a more responsible role in academic decision making,” read a News editorial, “but all three were equally vague as to exactly how they would implement the change in the power structure to achieve the second objective.”

Rodham won and in her exuberance took aside one of her professors, Steve London, telling him: “I can’t believe what has just happened. I was just elected president of the government. Can you believe it? Can you believe that happened?”

WORKING IN THE SYSTEM

Rodham was elected in early 1968 and served through the winter of 1969. During her tenure, tens of thousands of college students across the nation were radicalized, and some -- at larger, coed universities, for the most part -- occupied or even burned buildings. Rodham and her fellow Wellesley students were not among those who took to the streets.

“She worked within the system,” says classmate Sallie Dunning. “Plenty didn’t, but she did.”

“She was liberal in her attitudes, but she was definitely not radical,” recalls Ruth Adams. “She was, as a number of her generation were, interested in effecting change, but from within rather than outside the system. They were not a group that wanted to go out and riot and burn things. They wanted to go to law school, get good degrees and change from within.”

As president, she refined her consensus style. Minutes of college government meetings over which she presided reveal her cautious approach. Notes from a meeting in November 1968 indicate that “Miss Rodham questions if it would be politic to approach individual faculty members and discuss the matter of student participation with them.”

Acheson recalls her as “a sophisticated coalition builder who provided extremely strong and very sensible leadership. Some people were shrill, accusatory and adversarial to the administration of the college, but she artfully and very respectfully led student government to where it was an important factor at the school.”

Ruth Adams and Rodham met at least once a week while she was college government president, and they disagreed on many if not most issues, but their discourse, says Adams, was always civil and intelligent.

A STEP AHEAD OF OTHERS

Nonetheless, Rodham had a reputation as, at times, one who possessed sharp elbows. During a two-day strike in which students participated in teach-ins on race and the war rather than go to class, Marshall I. Goldman, professor of Russian economics, told an assembly of students: “Let’s give up the weekends, something that we enjoy. Don’t give up classes -- that’s not a sacrifice.”

According to the Wellesley News, Rodham shot back: “I’ll give up my date Saturday night, Mr. Goldman, but I don’t think that’s the point. Individual consciences are fine, but individual consciences have to be made manifest.”

“She was often a step ahead of people and sometimes a little impatient,” says Jan Piercy. “She is not someone who suffers fools gladly.”

Her mother recognizes this characteristic in her daughter. “Maybe she does get impatient once in a while when she’s on a course and knows it’s going to work. Maybe she needs to work on that. That’s because she simply doesn’t have the time to walk people through everything,” says Dorothy Rodham.

“She is so smart. She thinks of aspects of problems that do not occur to other people.”

Ruth Adams, the Wellesley president, says she was “not always easy to deal with if you were disagreeing with her. She could be very insistent.”

In class, Hillary was often challenging, recalls classmate Gale Lyon- Rosenberger. “It sometimes had an edge to it. She could be a little cutting.”

That edge notwithstanding, some students believed Rodham’s relationship with the administration might have been a bit too cozy. “There were probably some students among us who felt she had too good a rapport with the administration,” says Penny Ortner McPhee, who was editor of the Wellesley News during Rodham’s term as president. “She was maybe more willing to compromise, to compromise too soon. I remember a specific episode when we were in the president’s office. I can’t remember the issue, but I remember some of us came out disappointed with the ultimate compromise.”

But Marshall Goldman defends the pace of change and the orderly process by which it was made. “Of all the schools I’m familiar with, Wellesley went through this process the least destructively and that is in part because there were leaders like Hillary around,” he says. “Compromise made the institution a healthier place. It could have been much worse. I’m not sure that it could have been much better.”

Rodham emerged with considerable success; nearly all of the changes she sought -- from recruitment of black students to more liberal parietals -- were approved. In the process, she also gained a stellar reputation.

“There were so many intelligent, accomplished women, but even in that group Hillary stood out,” says classmate Nancy Gist. “She had a particular charisma. Her leadership, ability to focus and maturity made her stand out even in a place full of very, very talented women.”

POLITICAL ALLY OF BLACKS

On no subject did Rodham evolve as significantly as she did on race. She had come to Wellesley from a white suburb where contact with blacks was all but unheard of, where blacks were still referred to by some as “colored.” Rodham had had at least some minimal exposure to blacks through her youth minister, Rev. Jones, who had brought a group of young people from Rodham’s Park Ridge church into Chicago to meet with black gang members. In 1962, Jones had taken Rodham and others into the city to meet a young preacher, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps in part as a result of these experiences, Rodham arrived at Wellesley with the clear intent of learning more about blacks.

During one of her first weeks at school, she made a point of inviting a black woman to go with her to Sunday church services. It was, in those times, an act of some daring.

After the service, she telephoned some people close to her back in Park Ridge and told them what she had done. They scolded her for what they considered a political act. Jones recalls that Rodham wrote to him that the people in Park Ridge she talked with said “they thought she did this not out of goodwill but as a symbolic gesture to a lily-white church.”

Rodham wrote to Jones that by taking her black friend to church, “I was testing me as much as I was testing the church.”

Had she seen someone a year earlier doing what she had done, Rodham wrote, her reaction would have been: “Look how liberal that girl is trying to be going to church with a Negro.”

In Rodham’s class at Wellesley, only six of the more than 400 students were black (there were no black faculty members). She would eventually become a political ally of the black students on campus, but initially, says schoolmate Karen Williamson, “she was just a friend. And as a black woman going to Wellesley at the time friends were very welcome. She was warm, a regular person. All the black students in our class felt we had a very close friendship in Hillary.”

Rodham wrote to Jones voicing support for civil rights, but objecting to the extremism of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a group considered among the more radical civil rights organizations of the time.

She wrote that “just because a person cannot approve of SNCC’s attitude toward civil disobedience does not mean that one wishes to maintain the racial status quo.”

Rodham worked at learning about blacks and urban issues and was one of the first Wellesley students to enroll in a new urban sociology class in the fall of 1967. The instructor, Steve London, remembers Rodham as one of a fairly small number of students “who consistently and continuously demonstrated a very real concern with the nature of race relations.”

Johanna Branson, Rodham’s roommate, remembers well how Rodham reacted the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Branson was sitting in their suite when “suddenly, the door flew open. Her bookbag flew across the room and slammed into the wall. She was distraught. She was yelling. She kept asking questions. She said, ‘I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t take it.’ She was crying.”

That night, Williamson, head of the black student organization, was in her room, mourning, when Rodham called to express her sorrow.

A DILIGENT STUDENT

Just about a month after King’s assassination, Rodham and other students were involved in a two-day strike on campus. Rather than go to class they organized workshops and attended teach-ins. But she was disappointed with the day.

“Although I respect the right of the student not to strike her classes, I was disappointed that there were not more people participating in the day’s activities,” she said, according to the Wellesley News. “I didn’t learn anything new as far as the specific issues were concerned, although I did pick up some tangential ideas.”

For all of her extracurricular activities, Rodham was a diligent student. As graduation approached, she was among those named a Durant Scholar, one of the highest academic honors bestowed on a Wellesley student (there was not then at Wellesley a summa or magna cum laude designation). To earn a place among the Durant Scholars a student needed an average of at least B-plus.

As she completed her major in political science, Rodham devoted much of her senior year to her honors thesis on poverty programs.

Alan Schechter, a political science professor who was Rodham’s thesis adviser, says her paper raised the question of how much control poor people should have over programs designed for their benefit.

“Her conclusion was that the participation of the poor would bring short- term benefits but not lasting benefits,” he says.

It was a finding that indicated, once again, her pragmatic nature. Her conclusion was not a “philosophically liberal” one, he says. “She was able to take a liberal program and analyze it pragmatically to determine whether it works.”

A MATCH MADE AT YALE

After Wellesley, Hillary Rodham went on to Yale Law School, where she began to develop her specialty in children’s law. It was there that she met her husband. Bill Clinton was in the library when she walked up to him and said, ‘‘If you’re going to keep looking at me and I’m going to keep looking back, we at least ought to know each other.”

Her marriage to Clinton seems a touch ironic in light of a comment she made years ago to her college friend Betsy Griffith. She had just finished reading a New York Times article noting that presidential adviser Theodore Sorensen ‘‘was so busy with the campaign he only came home once every three weeks to get a new batch of shirts. Both of us were saying we didn’t want to be married to people like that.”

At Wellesley she did talk, though only occasionally, about the possibility of one day running for public office. “It’s not so much that she talked about it,” says classmate Jan Piercy, “as other people around her talked about it on her behalf.”

As they look back over the years, Rodham’s classmates interviewed for this article expressed an ironic bit of surprise about her going to the White House as the president’s wife.

“A lot of us thought Hillary would be the first woman president,” says Karen Williamson. “I thought if ever in my lifetime there is a woman president it would be her.”