For Hillary Clinton, Historic Run Had Its Roots at Wellesley - NBC Bay Area
Decision 2016

Decision 2016

Full coverage of the race for the White House

For Hillary Clinton, Historic Run Had Its Roots at Wellesley

As Wellesley College's first ever student commencement speaker, Clinton put aside her prepared remarks



    For Hillary Clinton, Historic Run Had Its Roots at Wellesley
    Boston Globe via Getty Images
    Hillary Rodham Clinton as a Wellesley College senior, May 31, 1969.

    Even as a college senior nearly 50 years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton was willing to be confrontational when it came to her political passions, challenging a U.S. senator about the urgency to alleviate poverty and earning herself a rebuke from the Chicago Tribune, which called her "discourtesy" unjustified.

    As Wellesley College's first ever student commencement speaker, Clinton put aside her prepared remarks to address comments made by U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, who had preceded her on the stage at the graduation. A moderate Republican representing Massachusetts, Brooke had urged the students not to overlook the progress already made.

    Though concerned that she not be seen as attacking Brooke, she responded, "What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction."

    The 21-year-old offered an early preview of how she viewed politics, saying, "We feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible."

    President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton and daughter Chelsea wave as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue Monday Jan. 20, 1997 to start the presidential inaugural parade.
    Photo credit: AP

    Nearly 100 years after American women got the right to vote, Clinton could be about to make another achievement possible for women by becoming the first woman elected president. She has been up against an opponent who tailored his message primarily to disaffected white men in a tight and intensely fought race rife with misogyny.

    Clinton was chosen the Democratic presidential nominee after a lifetime of firsts, among them the first first lady to be elected a U.S. senator, but also after years of repeated investigations by her political enemies who even before she might ascend to the White House are threatening to impeach her.

    "It's historic and not just for women and women's participation but it's historic for our democracy in the same way that electing Barack Obama was historic," said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. "It is a breakthrough."

    Clinton, who lost her first try for the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, initially made a name for herself for her work on behalf of women and children, joining Marian Wright Edelman's Children’s Defense Fund out of Yale Law School. Among her jobs: going undercover to collect data on school segregation. She went on to become the first female partner at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, the first lady of Arkansas and the first lady of the United States.

    But she has had considerable defeats too, failing to overhaul the country's health care system while she was first lady for example and earning widespread censure for her clumsy approach. "I now come from the school of small steps," she said later while campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

    Many of her opponents have criticized her policies or what they see as unethical or illegal behavior — though none has been proven — but others have attacked her as a woman.

    Former U.S. president Bill Clinton looks at his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) as she is ceremonially sworn in at the State Department in Washington,DC on February 2, 2009.
    Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

    At a rally for Donald Trump in New Hampshire on Friday, former Gov. John Sununu asked if Bill Clinton was referring to Hillary Clinton when he said, "I never had sex with that woman," (Bill Clinton was talking about Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom he had an affair, when he said "I never had sexual relations with that woman.")

    A tweet sent last week from the account of the Texas agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, called her a sexually explicit and derogatory term for a woman. His office later said it had been sent inadvertently. 

    That hostility has made it even more urgent to elect a woman, say activists and some of Clinton's Wellesley College classmates, who believe she is the best qualified for the job.

    Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization of Women, said the election was important because Clinton is an "unapologetic feminist."

    "She is a practical progressive politician who likes to get things done," O'Neill said. "But she has spent her entire career working to empower women."

    During her tenure as secretary of state under Obama, she met not only with elite women around the world but also those working to advance women's position in society, O'Neill said. She expects Clinton would make priorities of closing the gender wage gap and ensuring that lower-income women have access to health care.

    Nancy Wanderer at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. Wanderer and Hillary Clinton were classmates at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
    Photo credit: Sarah Glover

    "All the ways in which women are currently discriminated against, they all circle back to keeping women economically insecure," O'Neill said. "And when women are not economically secure, their whole families suffer, including the men in their households."

    Kris Olson, the U.S. attorney for Oregon during the Bill Clinton administration, knew Clinton both at Wellesley and at Yale University Law School and said that even then she was building bridges among different groups. As president, Clinton would not only be tough on international issues, but would focus on the critical issues affecting women and children, she said.

    "We need somebody to set the tone," Olson said.

    A CNN/ORC poll done early this year, before Clinton was picked as the Democratic nominee, found that three quarters of registered women voters thought that United States was ready for a female president. But only a third said it was very important to elect one in their lifetime — a finding that Walsh believed could be a result of younger women already used to women in powerful positions.

    A poll conducted of Wellesley College’s seniors found that 65 percent supported Clinton, 14 percent backed Sanders and 2 percent favored Trump. At the same time, 51 percent said that gender mattered only a little and 31 percent said not at all.

    Olson, like many of her contemporaries, said some younger women failed to appreciate the battles her generation fought, over reproductive rights for example, and how easily they could be turned back. And the misogyny that Clinton has encountered, the opposition to her that runs so deep in the country, likely will continue, she said.

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    "The slurs over the years have been remarkable and they've intensified in the election and I don't see them abating," she said.

    Sharvari Johari, a co-editor of the college's newspaper, The Wellesley News, and a current senior, agreed it was important to elect a woman as president, as a role model for younger women in politics and as someone who might influence the focus of legislation.

    "With a woman president we might not have the same battles over women's reproductive rights, and we might have more support for single mothers and families," she said. "These are all issues that tend to be more important for women."

    But women at Wellesley are choosing Clinton because she is the best candidate on the ballot, she said.

    "Even though gender is incredibly important and it's important to support your fellow women, that comes with the asterisk — that you're going to support a fellow woman who deserves it, hard working women who are qualified and intelligent," she said. "Clinton is a woman but she is also incredibly qualified and incredibly intelligent and has political savvy. So my vote for her is both as a woman and as an educated voter."

    After leaving Wellesley College with Clinton in 1969, Dr. Lonny Higgins, a obstetrician and gynecologist, founded women's health centers in Hawaii and cofounded the MariMed Foundation for Hawaii's young people and families. Electing a woman would show how much women's and men's roles have evolved and broadened, and allow the country to tap into everyone's skills, she said. The entire culture would benefit, she said.

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    "Why not a woman?" Higgins asked.

    Nancy Wanderer, another former classmate who was the director of the legal research and writing program at the University of Maine Law School, said the world had already seen the effects of having men in power.

    "We need to try the other half of the talent, really not just in the country but in the world," she said.

    A woman would bring a different perspective to such decisions as whether to send people to war or how to take care of children and help women work without worrying about whether their children were safe, she said.

    "I just think men haven't been able to do that so far," she said.

    And although many female leaders have not focused on issues important to women, Clinton would, her supporters say.

    A gender gap has been evident throughout the race. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of Florida last month, for example, found Clinton ahead of Trump by 9 percentage points among women who are likely to vote — 51 percent for Clinton to 42 percent for Trump. An even larger gap was found in North Carolina, 14 points among women, where Clinton led Trump, 52 percent to 38 percent.

    The reverse is also true in Florida. Trump led Clinton by 11 points among men likely to cast a ballot in Florida, 48 percent to 37 percent. But in North Carolina they were competitive among men, with Trump at 44 percent and Clinton at 42 percent.

    Plenty of successful women have supported Trump, notably his campaign manager Kelleyanne Conway, the first woman to run a Republican presidential campaign. But other prominent Republican women, among them U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, fled the Republican candidate after he was heard on a videotape bragging about groping women.

    As historic as Clinton's win would be, Walsh pointed to the dearth of women in many other positions and she worries that the push to elect more women could falter if voters think the job is done. Women make up only 19.4 percent of Congress as a whole — 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19.3 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives — and 25 percent of state legislatures.

    "We're behind many other countries when it comes to electing women as head of state," she said. "We're behind many countries frankly when it comes to electing women to our national legislature."

    Sarah B. Larrabee, another member of Clinton's class, now with a real estate company in Boulder, Colorado, recalled watching women push their daughters forward to see Clinton at a Democratic forum for women leaders. The girls were energized, she said, and some of their mothers were in tears.

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    "I've been wishing I could contact my grandmother who didn't have the right to vote until she had already raised half of her family," she said.

    And classmate Susan Doull, whose company, Commendable Tours, organizes privates tours in Africa, Italy and France, has lived abroad for more of her life than in the United States. Clinton would be both capable and caring, able to work across the political aisle and resilient after many years of attacks, she said.

    "It's definitely time that the U.S. catches up with the rest of the world, which is much more comfortable with the role of women in politics," she said. "Not that it's perfect anywhere but we're behind."