Hillary: a standard-bearer for her old college friends - and for feminists of yesteryear
Wellesley Class Sees ‘One of Us’ Bearing Standard
By TAMAR LEWIN/NY Times
For her Wellesley classmates, Hillary Clinton ’s quest to become the first female president is a generational mirror. Some like what they see; others are less certain.
They were there for her fiery commencement speech, delivered at the height of the Vietnam War, when she described her class’s search for a “more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living” and said that every protest was “unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.” The speech landed Hillary Rodham in the spotlight as a celebrated archetype of a new generation of women.
“We were very proud of her: she was a feminist; she was outspoken,” said Jane Moss, a classmate who now teaches French at Colby College. “Hillary was speaking for all of us, for a generation that felt we weren’t being heard.”
From their days at Wellesley, where they attended Wednesday teas and fought to end parietal hours and curfews, to their pioneering careers in law, academia and science, the 400 members of that Class of 1969 have been marked by the profound shift in women’s roles that accompanied their coming of age.
Throughout their journey, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been both a standard-bearer and a touchstone to measure themselves against.
They have winced at her struggles over how to be a modern first lady and her marital humiliations, rejoiced with her election to the Senate, puzzled over how her guarded and cool political persona is so different from the warm, funny and outspoken woman they know. They still see her as the thoughtful friend who called every week after a husband died, or wrote a charming note about the birth of a grandson.
And some are raising money or volunteering in Mrs. Clinton’s effort to become the first woman elected to the White House.
“Just knowing that one of us is trying to be the first woman president is a kick in the butt,” said Jayne Abrams, executive director of a Pennsylvania nonprofit group, “enough to keep you going at an age when some of us might be thinking of slowing down.”
Mrs. Clinton’s struggles as the first woman in her Arkansas law firm, and then first lady of Arkansas resonate with her classmates, too, in their own battles as “first woman” in workplaces dominated by men, trying to navigate what now seem like quaint battles over whether a woman can take a business trip with a man, or whether a pregnant professor should get tenure.
“When Hillary had the class reunion at the White House, there were 325 of us there,” said Catherine S. Gidlow, a lawyer in St. Louis. “I turned to someone and said, ‘I think there are 324 of us here who feel like failures,’ and she said, ‘No, I think there are 325 of us who feel like failures.’ ”
But if Mrs. Clinton is elected the first female president, it will represent an enormous success, the payoff for decades of campaigning, compromising and personal challenges.
“When she came to Maine campaigning for Bill the first time, she was very stylish, very blond, very thin,” said Nancy Wanderer, director of the legal research and writing center at the University of Maine law school. “It was like she was in a Halloween costume and I thought, ‘Who is that?’ She looks more natural now. I think she’s had to tamp herself down a lot, but now that Bill’s out of the White House, it’s her chance, and I think she’s just warming up.”
The ’60s still loom large in American politics, providing the underlying text, for example, in the last presidential campaign’s debate over President Bush and Senator John Kerry ’s different records in the Vietnam War. Mrs. Clinton’s Wellesley senior thesis on Saul Alinsky, the radical Chicago community organizer, kept under wraps during the Clinton presidency, has been an endless source of fascination to her conservative critics.
On the cusp of seismic social change, and because of Mrs. Clinton, the class of 1969 has been much scrutinized. A book on the class, “Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age With Hillary’s Class — Wellesley ’69” (Times Books, 1999), found that most came from Republican families, with homemaker mothers, but that most had at some point outearned their husbands — all like Mrs. Clinton.
“We always felt a little special, because we were the ones who were there when all the rules changed,” said Susan Doull, who has lived in Europe for the last 20 years, running hotels. “We were the last class before Wellesley was diluted by men’s colleges like Yale going coed, and Wellesley was where we began to focus on the idea that we would have careers.”
It has not been easy to mesh the sense of unlimited possibility they got at Wellesley with the practical realities of being the first generation of professional women to enter the workplace en masse.
“I went to work for Citibank for two years after college,” Ms. Doull said, “and I was supposed to take a business trip with the officer I reported to, but his wife wouldn’t let him go with me, or he was afraid to tell her. I don’t think our daughters really grasp how different things were.”
Many of the women in the class have similar stories. Lawyers tell of using the back door or the freight elevator to attend meetings at men-only clubs. Academics described difficult fights for tenure.
“The French department had never had a woman in a tenure-track position when I got to Colby,” Professor Moss said, “and when I got pregnant before tenure, they literally didn’t know what to do. When I came up for tenure, my male colleagues voted against me and I got tenure, but you can imagine my feelings at department meetings for the next few years.”
Some of Mrs. Clinton’s classmates say they take personally criticism that she is “shrill” or “strident.”
“I hear these anti-Hillary attacks by men, especially right-wing men, and I feel like it’s just as much an attack on me,” said Cheryl Lynn Brierton, an in-house lawyer for the California courts. “It’s an effect of intelligence that you come across as intense, that you have strong views. I’ve always felt that the way she is singled out and attacked is very indicative of how society reacts to smart women.”
When she herself started working, Ms. Brierton said, she had to tone herself down and find a voice that would not be off-putting. So when she hears criticism of Mrs. Clinton, she said, “I’m constantly thinking, There but for the grace of God go I.”
Ms. Abrams, executive director of ParentWorks, a nonprofit parent-education and child-abuse prevention group based in Harrisburg, Pa., also identifies with Mrs. Clinton. “In my community, I think I’m perceived as Hillary-esque,” she said. “I talk too much, I advocate and my husband says he can’t take me anywhere because I’m always trying to raise money.”
Although she is a Republican , Ms. Abrams said she might well vote for Mrs. Clinton.
“She’s a brilliant charismatic woman,” Ms. Abrams said. “When we were in college, arguing about Vietnam, she knew what she was talking about, unlike the rest of us. She’s still brilliant, she’s still charismatic, but she’s also polarizing.”
Many of the Wellesley women have watched with sadness as the Hillary they knew changed from a passionate and outspoken figure to a more guarded and careful one as she put her husband’s political career first, campaigning at his side and then finding herself in uncharted territory as a new kind of first lady.
“What was striking even at Wellesley was Hillary’s boldness, her boundarylessness; she was way off the charts in being engaged in her community and in the world, taking personally what was happening and wanting to do something about it,” said Jan Piercy, a friend of Mrs. Clinton who was appointed United States executive director at the World Bank by President Clinton.
But, Ms. Piercy said, the boldness has been tempered. “If you spend all your adult life in the public eye,” she said, “you necessarily have to create a kind of protection, a caution, that will lead to the perception that you’re joyless or calculating or not spontaneous or Machiavellian.”
Eleanor Dean Acheson, the general counsel who was in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, said Mrs. Clinton was only now emerging from her husband’s shadow.
“What people now perceive as Hillary’s distance, the criticism that she’s cold and calculating, and does nothing without a focus group, finds its root in that she has had to be, for 25 years, in the spotlight, and in the shadow of Bill,” Ms. Acheson said. “I think she’s going to get more relaxed as this campaign goes, and show more of the personal qualities her friends have always seen.”
Some of the classmates believe Bill Clinton ’s 1992 campaign seared his wife, especially the attacks on her statements about not being “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” or not having “stayed home and baked cookies.”
“When she saw that something as seemingly innocuous as that cookie statement set off such a firestorm, it took me by surprise and it must have taken her by surprise, too,” said Cheryl L. Walker, a literature professor at Scripps College. “I think her strong commitments are the same, but she is definitely savvier, more cautious, and probably more cynical, than she was then. And actually, when she published her recipe, I made it, and it became the standard in my house, the ones my children liked best.”
Catherine Neal Parke, an English professor at the University of Missouri , said she saw her classmate’s life as a political and domestic allegory.
“She goes to a women’s college, gives that gangbuster graduation speech, then goes to Arkansas, continues her career in the stellar way, makes more money than her husband, has only one child,” Ms. Parke said. “Then she becomes the first lady, makes the cookies remark, tries health-care reform, but when it doesn’t work, she has to become the housewife of the White House, because that’s the required persona. Now that her husband’s out, though, she can go back to pursuing her own career.”
Of the marriage, Mr. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment, many classmates are reluctant to offer judgments. “I feel no need to draw any kind of conclusion,” Ms. Gidlow said. “It must have taken great perseverance to go on.”
Pamela C. Colony, a scientist who teaches at SUNY Cobleskill in upstate New York, said: “My husband thinks staying with Bill was a big mistake, but I have kind of mixed feelings. Part of me respects her for sticking with him, and part of me wonders why did she stick with him, was it for love-based reasons or political ones?”
Professor Colony and others sound rueful, too, about what they see as Mrs. Clinton’s political compromises. “She reaffirms for me the fact that as soon as you get into politics you have to compromise on your goals, if not your ideals,” the professor said. “It’s incredibly upsetting, but I think it’s a fact of life.”