Courtesy Clinton Presidential Library
“Hillary’s life is really a reflection of coming of age in the 1960s,” said Alan Schechter, a political science professor at Wellesley and former academic advisor to Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. “The key to understanding Hillary in term[s] of why she went to Yale and what she did after Yale is really key to understanding her whole [life].”
Eleven years her senior, Schechter was the faculty representative on the student government that Clinton headed in her third year at Wellesley College. In that role, Schechter watched her arbitrate between the student body, other members of the student government and Wellesley administrators. Clinton also took public policy courses taught by Schechter, and the professor remains Clinton’s close mentor and friend to this day.
Interviews with multiple individuals who knew Clinton in her college and law school years revealed a passionate women who has long been devoted to bringing on positive social change. Her time as an undergraduate at Wellesley and her professional development in New Haven, provided Clinton with the ground to enact such change in her later roles.
Schechter attributed Clinton’s long career in public service to the tumultuous times during which she formed her worldviews and to her innate inclination toward politics. He noted that Clinton was part of the first generation of American women who were able to go into professions such as law because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed two years before Clinton first set foot in college.
The young Clinton, Schechter recalled, concerned herself with social issues and sought to see changes in society and cultural practices that “benefited much more marginalized groups into better positions.” As a result, Clinton took classes with Schechter that focused on “quality-related” issues such as poverty — topics considered “cutting-edge” in the 1960s.
Even though gender discrimination had been recently deemed illegal, nobody knew exactly what that meant, Schechter said. Clinton was among a “core of women” in Wellesley around 1969 who had their heart set on going to law school, he recalled.
In the fall of 1969, the same year Yale College first accepted female applicants, Clinton was one of the 27 women in her 235-person class at the Law School. This number seems meager by present standards, but as Clinton recalled in her 2003 autobiography “Living History,” “it was a breakthrough at the time.”
But Clinton’s “first brush of prominence” on a national scale came even before her Law School days, Schechter said, when a speech she gave at her own Wellesley commencement was featured by Life magazine. The speech sparked conversation because Clinton’s fellow students asked Wellesley administrators to invite her as a Class Day speaker, an unusual feat as she was the first-ever student speaker at graduation.
Clinton stood apart from her fellow classmates before law school even started. Walter Wagoner ’65 LAW ’70 said students had heard about Clinton because of the Life magazine article and looked forward to meeting her on campus. Wagoner’s and Clinton’s years at law school overlapped by one year, during which both worked with the Law School student association.
Wagoner recalled his final year at law school coinciding with a very turbulent time in both Yale’s and the nation’s history, as Yale students were actively involved in conversations regarding civil rights and women’s rights. During their collaboration in the Law School student association, Wagoner said Clinton had an extraordinarily consensus-building personality and that she could reconcile opinions that were strong, and sometimes in radical opposition, between students.
“I do remember her [after more than four decades] because she was memorable,” Wagoner said. “Yale Law School has always been filled with promising personalities, people who are destined for success. It doesn’t happen to all of us. But we saw of her in that context, that she had what it takes to be whatever she chose to make of herself.”
Clinton eventually chose Yale Law School after visiting Harvard Law School in the spring of 1969, an anecdote she shared during her Class Day speech to Yale College graduates in 2001. Clinton said when she was introduced to a Harvard Law School professor as a prospective student, she noted she had to decide between attending Harvard Law School or its “nearest competitor” — Yale Law School. The professor responded by saying “first of all, [Harvard Law School does not] have a nearest competitor. And secondly, we don’t need any more women.”
According to Schechter, Clinton visited him upon returning to Wellesley “with smoke coming out of her ears.”
“What he said was so demeaning and sexist, but it reflected the values of people back in the day who were in high positions,” Schechter said. “We also discussed the fact that Yale Law School did not prepare students for practice in corporate law but a broader philosophy sense which was more interesting to her soul.”
Clinton’s legal education at Yale provided her with the necessary training for her career as a prominent corporate lawyer at Arkansas’ Rose Law Firm, the oldest American law firm west of the Mississippi River, and also furthered her long-standing commitment toward child care and childhood development — one that she has referred to in campaign addresses as “part of [her] North Star.”
“It was here that I developed a lifelong passion about children’s welfare,” Clinton said during an Oct. 2013 speech at the Law School’s Alumni Weekend, where she received the prestigious Award of Merit from the school’s alumni association. “If you want to know the moral and economic health of a community, look at the children.”
In early 1972, Clinton interned at the New Haven Legal Services office where she spent a semester advocating for children’s rights. Penn Rhodeen, a lawyer who closely collaborated with Clinton at the Legal Services office, said he was fascinated by Clinton’s dedication to children and their legal rights.
In “Living History,” Clinton wrote about a particular case the two worked on, in which the state ruled against a foster mother’s eligibility to adopt a two-year-old girl.
“The importance in this case we worked together is that it opened a world of concern to her that related to a pre-existing concern to the children under the law and public policy towards children,” Rhodeen said.
Rhodeen said he used to share a “vigorous” email correspondence with Clinton until recent years. He pointed out that some of these exchanges were made public by WikiLeaks, detailing what he described as interactions between two close friends.
Now, Rhodeen helps out with Clinton’s presidential campaign by writing opinion articles for publications based in swing states, such as the Tampa Bay Times in Florida and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
By her second year in law school, Clinton also provided legal service to victims of child abuse through a program run by the Yale New Haven Hospital and volunteered at the University’s Child Study Center to learn about new research in early childhood development.
It was at the Child Study Center that Clinton begun to develop what professor James Comer characterized as a “deep understanding” of the policy dimensions of issues relating to children’s welfare. Indeed, when Center Director Albert Solnit, prominent child psychoanalyst Anna Freud and Yale Law professor Joseph Goldstein published their well-received “Beyond the Best Interests of the Child” in 1973, Clinton was acknowledged at the start of the book for contributing “critical comments in various drafts of the manuscript.”
Now a professor of child psychiatry at the center and the pioneer of a child-development program employed by over 500 schools nationwide, Comer joined Yale as a medical school faculty member in 1968. His research focused on factors that prevented low income black students from performing well in formal educational settings. As part of his research, he organized seminars on child development — and eventually got to know one of the attendees quite well.
“[Clinton and I] were introduced to each other when she was First Lady of Arkansas and the Chairman of the Board of the Children’s Defense Fund,” Comer said, noting that he did some work for the Fund at the time. “She told me during that meeting that she had heard me before, and we later realized that it was at one of my seminars at the Child Study Center.”
According to Comer, he and Clinton have crossed paths a number of times in the decades since that meeting. Clinton even spoke at the 30th anniversary of Comer’s development program on April 30, 1998, leaving Washington, D.C. in the midst of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s bruising investigation of her husband’s administration. During her address, Comer said Clinton acknowledged that the title of her first book, “It Takes a Village,” was inspired by a similar turn of phrase Comer used in his earlier work.
“The underlying problem for poor kids is that their families have not been able to give them the kinds of experiences they need to grow, and their teachers do not receive adequate training in child development,” Comer said. “[Clinton] understands our efforts because she understands this — she came right out of the Child Studies Center where we were making that point.”
In her time under the political spotlight, Clinton’s passionate drive has come under close scrutiny. In 1996, Clinton’s mentor Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund, lambasted her former protege and her protege’s husband for their support of a bill that would reform federal welfare policy. When the bill was signed into law, Edelman’s husband resigned in protest from his post as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health & Human Services.
According to a June 3 Washington Post article, Edelman said the Clintons “were not friends in politics” during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. In a video released by the Clinton campaign in 2015, Edelman spoke fondly of Clinton, but a spokeswoman for the Children’s Defense Fund told the Post that Edelman would not be endorsing any candidate in this election.
Still, others remain steadfast in their support for Clinton.
Stipulating that he did not have any comment to offer on Clinton’s Republican opponent, Comer said he has always supported Clinton because of her thorough knowledge and understanding of the issues affecting the country.
“She knows more about child development and many more policy issues than any presidential candidate ever,” Comer said, echoing the remarks of many Clinton supporters, including two former presidents, who have suggested that she is the most qualified candidate to seek the presidency in American history.
Comer added, however, that it is not just Clinton’s knowledge that makes her a compelling candidate, but her experience in advocating for critical issues in her various prior roles.
“Creating a generation of well-developed children is the best way for us to address major social problem,” Comer said. “Not many people understand that and not many people have fought for that — but she is one of the exceptions.”
Despite dedicating her life to public service, Clinton expressed reluctance in becoming an elected official before running for an open U.S. Senate seat in New York in 2000. Schechter recalled a visit he made to the White House in 1999, during which Clinton said she never wanted to run for public office and that she had always thought of herself working administratively behind the scenes.
But she justified her decision to run for the Senate and perhaps for the presidency by citing the amount of social change she could initiate, Schechter added.
“If I am a former First Lady, I will always have a voice to speak out for my values. But if I am a U.S. Senator elected in my own right, I will have a much stronger voice to speak out for my values,” Clinton said in conversation with Schechter and a few close associates, Schechter recalled.