In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a generation of angry youth protested a war in Vietnam, and a Wellesley College senior named Hillary Diane Rodham applied to law school.
Rodham — who would later become first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and then a United States Senator known for firm stands on controversial issues — was having trouble deciding between two of America’s best.
The young Goldwater Republican turned Eugene McCarthy Democrat had a choice: head to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., or turn her sights to Yale and New Haven. She chose Yale, and more than 30 years later, she is back — as Class Day Speaker at the 300th Yale Commencement.
Class Day, held the day before Commencement, honors graduating seniors with a prestigious speaker and the reading of the class history and “Ivy Ode” — a poem written by a senior — by students.
A committee of seniors chose Clinton to speak at Commencement. But 30 years ago, Clinton was doing the choosing.
After a run-in with an arrogant, chauvinistic Harvard professor she met at a cocktail party, Clinton said she made up her mind to head to Yale for the first time.
“At the party, this friend of mine took me up and introduced me to one of his professors, who just peered down at me,” Clinton said, laughing. “My friend said, ‘Professor So-and-so, this is Hillary Rodham. She’s trying to decide between us and our nearest competitor.’ And this very imposing Harvard Law School professor said, ‘Well first of all, we don’t have any nearest competitors. And secondly, we don’t need any more women.’ That made my decision very quickly.”
Following her 1973 graduation from Yale Law School, Clinton carved out impressive careers in politics and law — two fields where women were not always welcome.
First as a practicing lawyer, then as a politically active first lady, and finally as a U.S. Senator from New York, Clinton swam upstream and managed to stay well afloat.
For the strong-minded politician, being a woman at Yale Law School in the 1970s was much like being a woman in the U.S. Senate today.
“It’s like night and day, the differences between today and when I went to law school,” Clinton said, speaking from her office in Washington, D.C. “The idea that a woman would pursue any career in the law is no longer worthy of much comment. Being in the Senate now, we’re back on the smaller side of the balance sheet.”
For New York State’s junior senator, America’s most political first lady and the wife of former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, both life and career have been shaped by conviction and controversy.
Even the announcement that she would speak at this year’s Class Day ceremonies prompted objections from the conservative quarters of the Yale community.
But Clinton shrugs most of it off.
“I would have been disappointed in the political vibrancy of Yale if there wasn’t a spirited debate over the selection of almost any speaker,” Clinton said without hesitation. “I was just very honored that I was asked to speak.”
Growing up outside Chicago as a teenager, a young Hillary Rodham did not allow anyone to limit her involvement in the male-dominated world that was politics.
One of her earliest bids for elective office — her campaign for president of her high school in Park Ridge, Ill. — ended in failure when she lost to the captain of the football team.
Park Ridge, where Clinton attended public school until she left for Wellesley in 1965, was a Republican community, and Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham, was a devout Methodist who always voted Republican.
Taking after her father, she supported Barry Goldwater in his losing 1964 campaign against Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
Clinton was not a liberal when she entered Wellesley College in the fall of 1965.
But whatever turned the young Cold War Republican into a Democratic senator, an advocate of women’s and children’s rights, health care reform and public education reform, had taken strong hold by the time she graduated in 1969.
Speaking as valedictorian at her own commencement, Clinton made headlines when she broke from her prepared speech and took a stand for a generation of youth disillusioned by Cold War culture and the conflict in Vietnam.
She turned a sharp tongue on Sen. Edward Brooke — one of the nation’s most prominent black politicians, and a Republican for whom she had even campaigned in the fall of 1965 — who just minutes earlier had condemned in his own address “coercive protests by anti-war college radicals.”
“We’re not in the position yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protests,” Clinton told an astonished crowd of students and parents. “The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
The students gave her a seven-minute standing ovation.
Earlier this month, Clinton attributed the speech she gave to the freedom of choice she was “lucky enough to find” at Wellesley and Yale.
The next chapter in Clinton’s life took her to Yale Law School, where she met her future husband, found her commitment to children’s rights, and learned so many of the skills she would need over the next 30 years as a lawyer, mother, first lady and U.S. Senator.
Yale is the only private school where Clinton will speak. She will also address the graduates of several New York State schools.