In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the groundbreaking study of the role women were then playing in American society. She identified “the problem that has no name” — a discontent widespread among women whose duties as homemaker left them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. The women’s movement that emerged in the wake of Friedan’s book created two primary opposing models: the left-leaning feminist who wanted to revolutionize society’s patriarchy through whatever means necessary and the centrist advocate who hoped to affect change by entering the patriarchy and altering it from within. Friedan chose the latter. It promised to be long-term and difficult, but she believed it stood a greater chance of success.
The most prominent woman to emerge from the women’s movement in America is Hillary Rodham Clinton, yet, because of her stature as a historic figure and the events that made her one, she is often misunderstood, especially on the issue of gender politics. She is not a bra-burning feminist willing to embrace radical methods to advance her cause, but a descendant of Betty Friedan, who broke from the National Organization For Women, which she helped found, because it became too extreme for her taste. Understanding where Clinton falls in the spectrum of the women’s movement explains who she is as a woman, why she has been successful at creating change in the United States and abroad, and why she is often misread by third-wave feminists and millennials, many of whom call themselves fourth-wave feminists. To show just how high the level of misunderstanding can be, during the Democratic presidential primary one young Instagram user wrote, “Bernie Sanders has done more for feminism than Hillary Clinton has.”
How could this young feminist be so far off the mark? To understand Hillary Clinton you have to understand where she came from. She was born in Chicago in 1947 but, after the age of three, lived in nearby suburban Park Ridge. A dye-in-the-wool Midwesterner coming of age in the tranquilized fifties, she grew up, as she would say, “in the middle class in the middle of the country in the middle of the century.” Her mother, Dorothy, was a housewife; her father, Hugh, a small business owner with a bedrock conservative soul. In 1964, the Rodhams supported Barry Goldwater, and Hillary was a “Goldwater Girl.” Her family attended the Methodist Church, providing a religious foundation Hillary would rely on throughout her life. “It is the core of who I am,” she has said.
When she considered colleges, Hillary chose Wellesley College, one of the Seven Sisters schools, and its all-women environment left a lasting impression on her. Significantly, it changed her political persuasion. By 1968, because of her admiration of Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War, she became a Democrat. At Wellesley, she was so popular her fellow seniors chose her to deliver the student address at commencement. It was a stinging antiwar speech that attacked positions held by that year’s keynote speaker, Edward Brooke, the first African-American senator from Massachusetts, a rebuke that horrified the college administration but landed her in Life magazine — her first taste of the national media.
Hillary Rodham wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky, the revolutionary community organizer from Chicago. The title of her thesis was “There Is Only the Fight…” — a quote from T.S. Eliot, not Alinsky. In the future, when she emerged on the national political stage, the thesis was made unavailable to the public, so critics assumed the document revealed her nascent indoctrination into Alinsky’s Marxist ideology. On the contrary, Rodham dismisses Alinsky’s vision as not “large” enough. An exchange said to have taken place between Alinsky and Rodham, when he offered her a job, clarifies her thinking about him. Turning down his offer, Rodham argued that his extreme methods offended middle-class citizens, such as those she grew up with in Park Ridge, which created a damaging backlash. She proposed a more moderate approach. “That won’t change anything,” Alinsky snapped. To which she replied, “Well, Mr. Alinsky, I see a different way than you.”
After being accepted into law school at both Harvard and Yale universities, Rodham encountered a sobering example of sexism when she attended a cocktail reception at Harvard Law School. In idle conversation with a law professor there, she mentioned she couldn’t decide between Harvard and its “closest competitor.” The professor shot back, “Well, first of all, we don’t have any close competitors. Secondly, we don’t need any more women at Harvard.” Ultimately, Rodham chose Yale, where she was one of only 27 women out of a first-year class of 235.
At Yale, she met a handsome and quick-witted fellow law student from Arkansas named Bill Clinton, who, by the time she finished her degree, wanted her to marry him. Instead, she put in a post-graduate year at the Yale Child Study Center, where she wrote “Children Under the Law,” a landmark study in the field of children’s rights that argued “child citizens” have the same rights as adults even if children are sometimes “powerless individuals.” She also worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, which Marion Wright Edelman had founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In August 1972, to be near Clinton, Rodham moved to Arkansas, where she taught at the School of Law at the University of Arkansas, one of only two female law professors there. She finally married Clinton in a Methodist ceremony on October 1, 1975, and, like many women of her generation, kept her maiden name. In 1978, Rodham became Arkansas’s first lady when Clinton was elected governor, although she continued to work, now as an attorney at the Rose Law Firm. When Clinton ran for reelection, the subject of Rodham’s name came up, since some Arkansans felt it was odd for the first lady to have a different last name from the governor. After some consideration, Rodham gave in to pressure from Clinton’s political handlers and began to refer to herself as Hillary Clinton or Mrs. Bill Clinton. As Betty Friedan had described, the balance of power in a marriage is complicated, especially when the woman is forging a career of her own. In the end, Clinton won reelection.
In 1992, when Clinton ran for president, opponents of Clinton made his ambitious and independent wife a target. No less than Richard Nixon weighed in when he referenced a comment once made by Cardinal de Richelieu: “Intellect on a woman is unbecoming.” Republicans called Clinton a “radical feminist,” a “militant feminist,” an “ideological leader [who would] push a radical-feminist agenda.” Some questioned her motive behind advocating for children’s rights, arguing she believed children should be able to sue their parents if they were unhappy with how they were being raised. American Spectator pegged her “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.”
Even so, Bill Clinton was elected president and Hillary took an office in the West Wing, a first for a first lady. She did so because, in addition to fulfilling her ceremonial duties, she intended to work on policy. Her first undertaking was Hillarycare, her failed attempt at healthcare reform that later became the basis of Obamacare. But perhaps the high point of her tenure as first lady came in September 1995 when she addressed the Fourth World Conference on Women, sponsored by the United Nations and held in Beijing, China. In the speech, which she wrote herself, she addressed women’s rights head on.
“It is time for us to say here in Beijing,” she declared, “that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights…. It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small. It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war…. If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Clinton had not fully anticipated the power of what she had done. “Speaking more forcefully on human rights than any American dignitary has on Chinese soil,” The New York Times noted, “Hillary Rodham Clinton catalogued a devastating litany of abuse that has afflicted women around the world today and criticized China for seeking to limit free and open discussion of women’s issues here.” Since CNN telecast the speech live as she was delivering it, the immediate global impact of what Clinton had done was hard to overstate. Here, live on worldwide television, was the First Lady of the United States standing in Beijing criticizing governments, including the Chinese regime, of abusing women’s rights. Instantly, the speech became a manifesto for women around the world and Clinton assumed the mantle of global spokeswoman for women’s rights.
In 2000, as her husband’s second term was ending, Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York, making her the first first lady to assume elective office. She played a vital role in the government’s response to the September 11 attacks, especially when it came to securing federal funds to rebuild lower Manhattan. As for legislation, she voted for the Patriot Act and supported the war in Afghanistan. She voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution. While she sometimes sided with the Bush Administration on military issues, she balked at its fiscal policy, voting against both Bush tax cuts. She opposed Bush’s two Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
In 2007, when Clinton announced she was running for president, she became the frontrunner because of her biography and name recognition. However, Mark Penn, her chief political strategist, made a fatal miscalculation. While voters see the president as the country’s “father,” he wrote in a memo, they “do not want someone who would be the first mama.” Still, because “there is a yearning for a kind of tough single parent,” they would be “open to the first father being a woman.” In other words, voters would elect a woman president as long as she acted like a man. So Clinton ran as a man.
“Remaining Hillary Rodham for years (she famously did not take her husband Bill’s name at first),” The New York Times later observed, “she has lived on the front line of the women’s movement from the time it was young and vigorous. For many of her peers, she crystallized the aspirations set forth by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, the 1963 cri de coeur against brittle suburban domesticity.” Maybe, but her campaign shied away from such sentiments. Therefore, it should not have been surprising when on January 3 she badly lost the Iowa caucus, coming in third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. The following week, when she teared up while answering a voter’s question in a coffee shop in New Hampshire, for the first time revealing her human side, she went on to win the state’s primary. “Over the last week,” she said in her victory speech to a crowd of enthusiastic supporters, “I listened to you, and in the process I found my voice.”
But the media was skeptical. Jodi Kantor, writing in The Times, was unmoved; she believed Clinton “meted out her inner life one teaspoon at a time.” Maureen Dowd, also writing in The Times, asked, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back into the White House?” In National Review, Bill Kristol declared: “She pretended to cry, the women felt sorry for her, and she won.” Much of the press remained dismissive of her, as she and Obama found themselves locked in a months-long nomination battle that did not end until June. When she lost, having belatedly dismissed Penn along the way, she gave a concession speech in which she spoke for the first time as a woman.
“As we gather here today,” she said at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., “the fiftieth woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman in The White House.” The audience roared in approval. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Thunderous applause. “From now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.”
Then it was over. Clinton left the race having made her point: A woman had almost won the Democratic nomination for president and the country was ready for that. “It will be up to the historians,” Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post, “to ponder why Clinton waited until the very last day of her campaign to give full voice to the epochal nature of her candidacy. Through the Democratic primary race of 2008, she played own the significance of being the first woman within reach of the presidency. It’s tempting to wonder whether things would have turned out differently if she had embraced the theme earlier.”
When Obama assembled his Team of Rivals and asked Clinton to be his secretary of state, she became the first first lady to hold a cabinet position. Not surprisingly, at the Department of State, Clinton established as one of her top priorities the advancement of women’s issues. From Asia to the Middle East to Africa, she made it clear to governments that if they wanted to maintain a working relationship with the United States they had to attempt to embrace women’s rights. She often tied foreign aide to a country’s willingness to propagate women’s rights. If a nation took American money, it could not consciously avoid the issue of how it treated its female citizens.
Clinton found out what was happening in a country by meeting with local women directly, a break with diplomatic tradition. Through town hall meetings, informal dinners, and individual tours, she was able to speak with women, often one-on-one. “She talked chickens with female farmers in Kenya,” The Washington Post reported. “She listened to the excruciating stories of rape victims in war-torn Congo. And in South Africa, [she] visited a housing project build by poor women.” Introducing her at the Women in the World Summit in March 2012, Meryl Streep revealed the end result of this sort of personal diplomacy, an agenda often not covered by the media, which Streep herself had heard about from women attending the previous year’s conference: “Women from all over the world said the same thing: I am alive because [Clinton] came to my village, put her arm around me, and had a photograph taken together. I am alive because she went on our local TV and talked about my work, and now they’re afraid to kill me. I am alive because she came to my country and talked to our leaders, because I heard her speak, because I read about her.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first first lady to be so involved in policy she had an office in the West Wing. She was the first first lady to run for public office. She was the first woman to run a presidential campaign with a legitimate chance of securing her party’s nomination, winning more delegates and popular vote than any woman in American history. She was the first first lady to serve in a presidential cabinet. Now, when the Democrats gather for their convention this July, she will become the first woman nominated for president of the United States by a major political party. Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the transformative woman figure of her time.
Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 84th Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana United States, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Bergin