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What’s in a Name?
As the wife of an ambitious young politician running for high office in 1970s Arkansas, Hillary Rodham didn’t have the option of simply being herself. In every walk of life, women were expected to satisfy strict social standards. Deviate in the way you speak, act, dress, or style your hair and you will be judged. Break too many rules and you will be deemed an eccentric, a rebel, a failure, or even a danger. Woe to the woman who will not, or cannot, conform.
Conformity for a political wife meant being pleasant but not attention-seeking, concerned but not intrusive. Boosting your husband and his ideas was good. Offering your own insights was not. She could be pretty, but not sexy; well-spoken, but not opinionated. The path was narrow, and it led, inevitably, to a blank place where, no matter what she did, others would judge her according to their preexisting prejudices. This is the first obstacle every woman in politics encounters: Presentation is almost everything, and it’s impossible to get it right.
The saving grace in the role required of a young Hillary Rodham was the fact that the public’s interest in her was limited. As the wife of a politician who ran for Congress and lost and then was elected attorney general, Rodham didn’t matter to most Arkansans. When Bill Clinton then ran for governor, she mattered more, but for as long as he was merely a candidate, she was able to stay in the background. The press wasn’t curious about her views on policy and generally ignored her biography. Then her husband won, becoming the youngest person elected governor, in any state, in forty years. Suddenly, Rodham was not the wife of a politician but the First Lady of Arkansas. Add the couple’s youth and they could be considered actual, glamorous celebrities, and people wanted to know more about her.
The people of Arkansas finally got their first substantial exposure to Hillary Rodham, the actual person, in January 1979 as she sat for questions on a local TV program called In Focus, which was beamed across the state by a station in Jonesboro called KAIT. In Focus was recorded on a set that included a circle of bright green carpet on which were placed two straight-back chairs separated by a little white wicker table that had been decorated with a scraggly potted plant. It all looked like a parody of a small-market public affairs show, but it was, in 1979, where Arkansans turned for in-depth interviews with local people who mattered.
On this January morning, host Jack Hill sat opposite a young woman who wore big glasses that were stylish at the time but gave her an owlish look. As a woman in the public eye, Hillary Rodham would forever strive to communicate just the right message with her clothes, her glasses, her hair, her tone of voice, and even the expression on her face. (These were things most prominent men rarely considered.) On this day, Rodham sent the signal that she was a soft and feminine person. Her light brown hair fell just to her shoulders. A dusty-pink cardigan covered a white cowl-necked sweater. Her main concession to fashion was a pair of brown boots with three-inch heels.
Hill introduced Rodham to his viewers in the way that a ring announcer might present a boxer to the crowd at a prizefight, saying:
She’s a native of Illinois and was raised in the Chicago area. She has an undergraduate degree from Wellesley University and a law degree from Yale University, and that’s where she met her husband. Ms. Rodham is a former law professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is a practicing attorney in Little Rock.
Add her work on several high-profile political campaigns, as well as the House committee that initiated the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, and it would be easy to grasp why Rodham had been invited to be on the program. However, none of these accomplishments were noted by the host of In Focus. Instead, Hill stuck to Rodham’s pedigree, stressing that she was “Arkansas’s new First Lady and the wife of Governor Bill Clinton.” Viewers who may have missed the point were helped by the message HILLARY RODHAM, ARK. GOVERNOR’S WIFE, which flashed on the screen. The label defined Hillary Rodham in a way that would surely irritate some version of herself, perhaps even the version that visited the Jonesboro TV station on that winter day. She might have been annoyed, too, by the hint of condescension in Hill’s voice as he emphasized the word Ms. However, she didn’t act annoyed or irritated. Instead, she smiled, and nodded, and waited for the questions to come.1
“Your husband won the governorship in a landslide,” noted the talk show host. “But we’re still led to believe that it possibly could have cost him a few votes because your name was not the same as his.”
The “we” in the question was unclear, as was the identity of whoever led them to believe that Rodham had been a drag on her husband when, in fact, she was his most trusted advisor. Also, as a 63–36 winner who captured all but six of Arkansas’ seventy-five counties, one would be hard-pressed to show how Bill Clinton could have received more votes than he got. Still, Hillary Rodham accepted the question as sincere and offered a sincere reply.
“I had practiced law,” said Rodham. “I had worked in Washington and Boston. I had written several articles, had developed something of a specialization in the area of children and family law, and I knew that we were going to be undergoing a great deal of scrutiny and a great deal of attention if Bill continued in politics, which he intended to do in some form or another. And since I wanted to continue practicing law, I really did not want to mix my professional activities with his political activities.
“I didn’t want anyone ever to think that I was either taking advantage of his position or in some way riding on it, and there aren’t very many ways to persuade people of that. But I thought it essential that I try to keep as much of a distinction between my legal career and my obligations as Bill’s wife as I could. Keeping my name was part of that, as well as the professional reputation that I’d already built up.”
It should have been answer enough, but Hill wasn’t satisfied. Instead, he stuck with this line of inquiry, offering a series of statements and questions that could be boiled down to an accusation. Among them were:
“You’re not a native.”
“You’ve been educated in liberal, Eastern universities.”
“You are less than forty.”
“You don’t have any children.”
“You don’t use your husband’s name.”
“You practice law.”
Rodham’s face didn’t register an emotion as basic elements of her biography, most of which would be unremarkable for any man, were listed like the elements of offense in a criminal indictment. Only a careful viewer would have noted the impatience betrayed as she bounced her foot a few times as Hill asked, “Does it concern you that maybe other people feel that you don’t fit the image that we have created for the governor’s wife in Arkansas?”
“I regret any reason for someone voting against Bill other than on the basis of an honest disagreement with the issues,” replied Rodham. “People voted against him because of his youth, I think. Some people may have voted against him because he was born in Hope instead of Jonesboro. I mean,” she said with a chuckle, “there are all sorts of reasons why a voter might vote against a politician. They aren’t good reasons, in my mind.”
This was the answer of a woman who was every bit as intelligent, experienced, and capable as her husband. She thought for herself and could not fully resist speaking her mind. Bright and thoughtful, she possessed a self-confidence borne of a life that had already brought her significant achievements and the respect of others. But according to the rules of gender and politics, showing this confidence was a risky thing to do
* * *
Although Jack Hill had inferred that Hillary Rodham was disconnected from the reality of ordinary voters’ lives, she was not the product of multigenerational privilege or the advantages of wealth. Her mother, Dorothy Howell, had been raised in exceedingly bleak circumstances and left home at age fourteen to become a housekeeper and nanny. Howell married a salesman named Hugh Rodham, and in 1947, they had her first child, a girl they named Hillary.
At the time of their daughter’s birth, the Rodhams lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. Hugh Rodham became successful enough as the owner of a small business to move his family to the suburb of Park Ridge, where they enjoyed a solidly middle-class lifestyle. Mr. Rodham was a Republican. Mrs. Rodham leaned toward the Democrats. They both were Methodists. Hillary would be followed by brothers Hugh in 1950 and Tony in 1954.
A classic big-sister achiever, Hillary was a school safety monitor and a top student whose experiences foreshadowed a life in which high performance didn’t assure her the next opportunity. She dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but when she wrote to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the reply informed her that girls were not welcome to become space explorers. In high school, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” but when she ran for class president, she fell short. One of the two boys in the race told her, “You are really stupid if you think a girl can be elected president.”
On the advice of teachers who thought she would be less affected by sexism at an all-women’s college, Rodham applied to Wellesley, was accepted, and agreed to enroll in the fall of 1965 without ever seeing the place. When she got to the school, which is just outside Boston, Rodham was a politically engaged “Goldwater girl” at a moment when Time magazine could still report that female college students were mostly concerned about finding someone to marry. However, as so often happens, the journalists were behind the times. By 1965, the landmark feminist book The Feminine Mystique had been in print for two years, and one million copies had been sold. Mystique and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which was also published in 1963, had forced a consideration of the personal anguish caused by the unequal status of women. Add the civil rights movement, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the undeclared war in Vietnam, and college students were subject to dramatic events that made them question the status quo.
For Rodham, books, events, and people she met at college accelerated a political transformation that had actually started when she was in high school and the Reverend Donald Jones, the youth minister at her church, began to teach classes he called the University of Life. Field trips to poor Chicago neighborhoods and discussions of current events challenged her young Republican perspective. Her political reawakening continued at Wellesley until, by the time of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, she was like millions of her peers—alarmed if not disillusioned by the acute and ongoing traumas in American politics.
Rodham was working as an intern in Washington, D.C., when Robert Kennedy was killed. Her assignment in the office of the House Republican leadership had begun with a handshake from then representative Gerald Ford on her first day of work. In July, her boss in the Capitol, a congressman from western New York named Charles Goodell, brought Rodham and a few other interns to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Goodell supported Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the presidential nomination, but neither he nor the other main hopefuls, Ronald Reagan and George Romney, stood a chance against Richard Nixon.
Copyright © 2020 by Michael D’Antonio