America’s First Ladies

America’s First Ladies, #42: Hillary Rodham Clinton

America’s First Ladies, #42: Hillary Rodham Clinton

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Our forty-second First Lady is still well known today from her ongoing political and public careers independent of her husband since leaving the White House. She is best known, after being First Lady, for being the first woman nominated for the US Presidency by a major political party.

Before all that, though, Hillary was born Hillary Diane Rodham in Chicago, Illinois on October 26, 1947. Her father, Hugh, managed a small and successful textile business, while her mother, Dorothy Howell, was a homemaker. She would go on to have two younger brothers, Hugh and Tony, and her family was staunchly United Methodist.

She was a top student throughout her public school career, attaining many academic honors. Her senior year of high school, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” among her class, and she graduated in the top five percent of her high school class. When she went to college later that year, in 1965, she attended Wellesley and majored in Political Science. During her freshman year, she served as president of the school’s Young Republicans club, having been heavily politically influenced by her conservative family and high school History teacher, who was a passionate anti-communist advocate. In this position, she helped get several moderate Republicans elected to state, local, and national offices. However, her political views were changing.

By the time of her junior year at Wellesley, Hillary was a part of the antiwar effort supported by Democratic Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. She was elected President of the Wellesley College Government Association that year and served until she graduated. Several of her classmates expressed the opinion that she could one day be the first female US President.

She was still confused by her new political leanings, so one of her professors assigned her to intern at the House Republican Conference. This was to help her understand her changing views better. During this internship, moderate New York Republican House of Representatives member Charles Goodell invited Hillary to help on Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The campaign upset her in a number of ways, most notably with how rival Richard Nixon’s campaign portrayed Rockefeller, and in what she viewed as thinly veiled racist messages being espoused by the Republican convention in general. Because of these things, she left the Republican Party for good and became a Democrat.

When she graduated with honors in Political Science in 1969, she was the first student ever allowed to speak at a Wellesley commencement ceremony, and she received a lengthy standing ovation for her speech.

After graduation, Hillary attended Yale Law School, where she focused her studies on legal issues related to children. She also delved into women’s rights and the rights of migrant workers during her time in law school. It was during her second year at Yale that she met her future husband, Bill Clinton, who was also at law school at Yale. When Hillary got an internship at a prestigious law firm in California that summer, Bill canceled his own summer plans to go with her, and they lived together while there. They continued to live together in New Haven, Connecticut when they returned to law school. Hillary even stayed at Yale an extra year beyond what she needed to in order to be with Bill. Bill proposed to her after he graduated, but she declined because she was not yet certain if she wanted their futures to be so closely intertwined.

During her postgraduate year of study, Hillary continued to work on legal issues pertaining to children and was an early member of the new “children’s rights” movement. She was also part of the impeachment inquiry staff in Washington, D.C., and advised the House of Representatives on the issue during the Watergate scandal. The work Hillary and other staff members did in researching impeachment procedures and their historical grounds let to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

At this point in her career, Hillary was considered a young woman with a bright future in politics by many influential people in Washington, D.C. However, when she failed the Washington D.C. bar exam but passed the Arkansas one, she decided to move to Arkansas with Bill, even though there were more political job opportunities for her in Washington, D.C.

In Arkansas, Bill was teaching law and going for a seat in the House of Representatives. Hillary began teaching at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville School of Law, one of only two female teachers there at the time.

In 1975, Hillary finally agreed to marry Bill, who had been asking her for a couple of years at this point, and they were wed on October 11 of that year. The wedding took place in the living room of the house they had purchased together in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and was a Methodist ceremony. Because she wanted to keep their professional lives separate, Hillary kept her maiden name of Rodham, which upset both her mother and Bill’s, who were both more traditional in their beliefs.

Bill pursued a political career, and became Governor of Arkansas in 1978, making her the state’s First Lady. She held that title for twelve nonconsecutive years, as Bill was elected into, out of, into, and out of that office over the course of several elections. Meanwhile, Hillary worked in political positions Bill appointed her to as Governor, and also joined the Rose Law Firm, becoming the first woman to be made a full partner there. This position allowed her to earn a higher salary than Bill until he became US President.

Hillary gave birth to her only child, her daughter Chelsea, on February 27, 1980. Bill lost his bid for re-election as Governor that year, but campaigned for it again two years later and won, becoming Governor once more. During Bill’s second gubernatorial campaign, Hillary began using Bill’s last name in order to appease Arkansas’s voters. She also took a leave of absence from her law firm to help him campaign full time. Once she was Arkansas’s First Lady again, she began using the name “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” as a compromise between what she wanted and what voters seemed to want her to do.

Hillary was named Arkansas’s Woman of the Year in 1983, and Arkansas’s Mother of the Year in 1984. She also continued to practice law at the Rose Law Firm, though she made less money than her colleagues; this was, however, because she put in fewer billable hours as she was also performing her duties as the state’s First Lady.

When Bill was elected US President in 1992, Hillary became the 1st First Lady to have earned a postgraduate degree, and to have had her own career right up to entering the White House. She was also the 1st First Lady to have an office in the White House’s West Wing, in addition to the traditional First Lady offices in the East Wing. Today, some would say, Hillary Clinton is considered to be the second most openly and personally empowered First Lady, with only Eleanor Roosevelt (a personal heroine of Hillary’s) ahead of her in that line.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.