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The first child of Hugh Ellsworth Rodham and Dorothy Howell Rodham entered the world at more than eight pounds, a bigger-than-average bundle of joy.
“Very mature upon birth,” her mother joked.
Born October 26, 1947, the good-natured little girl was part of the baby boom that followed the end of World War II. Her parents named her Hillary Diane, a daring choice, since Hillary was generally considered a boy’s name at the time. Her mother liked it because it was unusual and sounded exotic.
After little brother Hugh arrived, the growing family moved from Chicago to the suburb of Park Ridge, known for its fine public schools, parks, and nice-sized houses. Her father paid cash for a two-story home in a neighborhood swarming with children all about the same age. When the weather was good, the streets brimmed with games of cops and robbers, hide-and-seek, or the more elaborate chase-and-run, as well as pickup softball or kickball.
As a newcomer, Hillary was tested by the other kids, especially a girl named Suzy, who had four brothers. Suzy was used to roughhousing, and her physical play often sent Hillary running home in tears. Finally, her mother told her, “You have to stand up for yourself. There’s no room in this house for cowards.” She gave her young daughter permission to hit back if Suzy hit her.
While her mother peeked out from the curtains, Hillary went back outside. Threatened again by Suzy, the four-year-old threw a punch.
The bullying stopped. And Hillary proudly reported to her mom, “I can play with the boys now!”
Hillary’s mom wanted Hillary, Hugh, and their baby brother, Tony, to have more opportunities and a better family life than she had. As a child, Dorothy had often been pushed off on relatives or left at home by herself for hours at a time. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and she and her three-year-old sister were sent alone on the days-long train ride to California to live with her father’s parents. Her grandmother was unusually strict, and once, Dorothy was grounded for months as punishment for trick-or-treating on Halloween. At fourteen, she escaped by getting a job as live-in help for a family.
Never able to attend college, she had returned to Chicago after high school and gotten a job. Through her work, she met Hugh, a traveling salesman who was eight years older. She was twenty-two years old when she married him in early 1942, just after the United States entered World War II.
As a full-time homemaker and mother, Dorothy cooked, washed, cleaned, and served. When Hillary came home from school for lunch, as kids did then, Dorothy fed her canned tomato or chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, cut in triangles. She also shared life lessons. Once, she showed her kids a carpenter’s level, with an air bubble floating in the center, as an example of how to stay centered and balanced. “You try to keep that bubble in the center,” she told them. “Sometimes it will go way up here,” she demonstrated, “and you have to bring it back.”
Though the family had a television set, it wasn’t on much—nor was there much on television in those years. Free family time was spent playing card games like war, slapjack, and pinochle, or board games like Monopoly and Clue. Dorothy took her bright and curious daughter to the library every week for new books and encouraged her to pursue her own interests.
“She was kind of an exasperating little girl because she was right most of the time,” her mother recalled later.
Dorothy felt boxed in by restrictive women’s roles during the 1950s, and in response, she encouraged her oldest child to be her own person. “I was determined that no daughter of mine was going to have to go through the agony of being afraid to say what she had on her mind,” she told an interviewer later.
While Dorothy was affectionate, Hugh was gruff, demanding, and hard to please. If Hillary or one of her brothers left the cap off the toothpaste, her father would toss the cap out the bathroom window. The offender would be sent to find it in the bushes, even in the winter. When she struggled in neighborhood baseball games, her father, who had been a physical education major in college, took her to the park day after day, throwing pitches until she mastered hitting.
Hugh ran a drapery-fabric business and had a small silk-screening shop for printing designs. It was mostly a one-man operation, with help from temporary workers and family members. As a salesman who wanted to make a good impression, he insisted on driving a Cadillac, considered the fanciest car around at the time.
At home, however, he was notoriously tightfisted, a reflection in part of growing up poor during the Great Depression. He turned off the heat at night and turned it back on in the morning. The children were expected to do chores and help out, but weren’t paid an allowance for it. “We’d rake the leaves, cut the grass, pull weeds, shovel snow,” remembered Tony, the youngest Rodham. But when the kids would ask for some money to join their friends at the movies, their dad would “flop another potato on your dinner plate and say, ‘That’s your reward.’”
Hillary and her mother had to negotiate for special clothing purchases. “Do you want us to end up in the poorhouse?” he would say.
He was also tight with praise. When her brother Hugh completed ten of eleven passes to lead his high school football team to a 36-0 rout, his father was short on enthusiasm. “I got nothing to say to you,” he told his son, “except you should have completed the other one.” And when Hillary brought home a report card filled with As, her father was unimpressed. “That must be an easy school you go to,” he would tell her.
Hillary was a good student from early on, but not always a perfect one. Her third-grade report card in January 1956 noted that she needed some help in a couple of areas: “keeping belongings neat” and not reading aloud “too rapidly.” She did, however, get extra credit that spring for a book report and being a class librarian.
For Hugh and Tony, she was a hard act to follow. “At school, people sure expected a lot from Hillary’s brothers,” Hugh said later. But she was an attentive big sister, taking her brothers with her and her friends to Hinkley Park for hot dogs. “When she wasn’t studying, she was a lot of fun,” Tony said. “But she was always studying.”
With a father and two brothers who were serious about sports, she became a sports fan and was especially fond of baseball. Though her favorites were Ernie Banks and the Chicago Cubs, “she also knew all the players and stats, batting averages—[New York Yankees] Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle—everything about baseball,” recalled a school friend, Rick Ricketts. She quizzed him on obscure trivia, like whether he knew about the Bums, the nickname for the Brooklyn Dodgers, or could recite the 1927 Yankees’ batting order.
From an early age, she also was interested in the broader world and in history. Ricketts remembered her as a good debater, even at nine. They would discuss politics and current events on the way home from school, or sitting on a wooden fence outside her house. Once they engaged in a long discussion about what would have happened had the South won the Civil War.
At home and in Park Ridge generally, the politics were Republican. Hugh was a believer in self-reliance and drilled into his kids that people succeed because of their personal initiative and hard work. Assistance from government wasn’t necessary—and, like many Park Ridge residents, he strongly opposed communism, a political system prevalent then in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and parts of Asia where a powerful central government, rather than private owners, controlled all the property. Amid the sometimes-heated conversations around the kitchen table, Hillary said she learned that “if you believed in something, you had better be prepared to defend it.”
Her mother was a closet Democrat, more open to the government helping those with fewer opportunities. But since her husband was dead certain about his opinions, she mostly kept her own views to herself.
To make his point, Hillary wrote later, her father periodically drove the family to a poor area “to see what became of people who, as he saw it, lacked the self-discipline and motivation to keep their lives on track.”
His oldest child had little trouble with motivation—or ambition. As a Brownie and then a Girl Scout, she sold cookies, helped with food drives, and joined in other activities, earning a mass of badges and pins. (She wasn’t so good about getting them on her sash, however. “I’m still working on my sewing badge,” she joked years later.) She organized neighborhood games and carnivals and even a mock Olympics, both for fun and to collect nickels and dimes for charities like the United Way.
In school, she was elected co-captain of the safety patrol, a prestigious position for especially well-behaved older students, who helped younger kids safely cross streets to and from school. Toward the end of sixth grade, she and a friend tried to convince their parents that they should be allowed to wear stockings instead of ankle socks to their graduation. When their parents pushed back, they tried a political ploy, circulating a petition among their friends. But their parents, being more like dictators than elected officials, refused to give in.
For fun, she and a friend saw double features on Saturdays at the Pickwick Theatre for twenty-five cents—with buttered popcorn costing another quarter. She was fond of the Robin Hood restaurant and its spicy spaghetti, which may have helped develop her affection for spicy foods. (As an adult, she liked jalapeños in her scrambled eggs and traveled with a bottle of Tabasco sauce in her purse.)
To earn money, Hillary babysat in the neighborhood, and starting at thirteen until she went to college, she worked during the summers. In the early years, she ran a children’s program at a nearby park, dragging a wagon full of sports equipment from her home so that kids could play games and jump rope.
In a lengthy essay she wrote in sixth grade, titled “My Future,” she wrote of an interest in education and plans to work outside the home, a rarity for adult women in Park Ridge in the 1950s. “When I grow up I want to have had the best education I could have possibly obtained. If I obtain this I will probably be able to get a very good job,” she wrote.
Her different career interests reflected the times. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit, raising the possibility that similar technology could be used to send missiles much longer distances than ever before. In the urgent Cold War space race that followed, schools began to identify smart students who could become scientists. In her essay, Hillary was seemingly torn between a traditional female career and the new national obsession: “I want to either be a teacher or a nuclear physics scientist,” she wrote.
A few years later, after President John F. Kennedy challenged America in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Hillary sent a letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to inquire about becoming an astronaut.
NASA’s answer: We are not accepting women into the program.
It was Hillary’s first face-to-face encounter with discrimination, and she was angry and hurt to realize that her own hard work and initiative wouldn’t make a difference. Over time, she also realized that her lousy eyesight, which required her to wear thick glasses, would have disqualified her anyway. And as she moved toward high school, her interests and passions were already shifting in another direction.
Copyright © 2016 by Karen Blumenthal