Hillary Clinton was the first First Lady to be elected to Congress and is the first First Lady to serve in a cabinet position.
Born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947, in Chicago, IL, Clinton was raised by her parents, Hugh Ellsworth Rodham and Dorothy Emma Howell. Politically conservative, her father managed a small drapery business, while her mother stayed at home to raise Clinton and her two younger brothers, Hugh and Tony.
While growing up in Park Ridge, IL, Clinton was both a Brownie and a Girl Scout. Her first taste of politics came at age 13 when she walked neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago during the 1960 presidential election—in support of Richard Nixon. In 1962, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago, and in 1964, she volunteered for the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
Clinton attended Maine East High School and Maine South High School, participating in student council and the school newspaper. She was selected for the National Honor Society and was a National Merit Finalist when she graduated in 1965.
Clinton attended Wellesley College and majored in political science. The political conservatism she inherited from her father continued, at first; she served as president of the Wellesley Young Republicans during her freshman year. But by her junior year, the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War began to cause her philosophy to shift to the left. During the summer of 1968 she worked as an intern in Washington for the House Republican Conference. While still a Republican, she supported the Democratic campaign of Eugene McCarthy. Her split from the GOP was not complete until the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, which she attended. Upset over Nixon’s harsh portrayal of Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate Republican whom she supported, and the GOP’s “veiled” racist messages, she left the Republican Party for good.
Clinton graduated from Wellesley in 1969 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, with honors. She delivered the first-ever student address at commencement, during which she criticized Republican Senator Edward Brooke, who had spoken before her, as a Nixon apologist. The speech garnered her media attention in national publications.
Immediately after college, Clinton worked her way across Alaska, including time at a fish cannery, where she reportedly was fired for complaining about the unhealthy working conditions. She then attended Yale Law School and served on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action. In 1970, she was awarded a grant to work at the Washington Research Project (which later became the Children’s Defense Fund) and was assigned to Senator Walter Mondale’s Subcommittee on Migratory Labor. While still attending Yale, she met fellow law student Bill Clinton, and the two began dating.
They campaigned together for George McGovern in 1972. The following year, Hillary received her Juris Doctor degree, after which Bill proposed marriage. Hillary declined—the first of many rebuffs to come—and instead opted to perform a year of post-graduate study on children and medicine at the Yale Child Study Center. During 1974 she was a member of the impeachment inquiry staff in Washington, DC, advising the House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. After failing the District of Columbia bar exam and passing the Arkansas exam, Clinton decided to move to Arkansas, where Bill Clinton was teaching law and running for Congress. She joined him at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, law school, becoming one of only two female instructors.
After turning down several more of Bill’s marriage proposals, she finally agreed, and the two were married on October 11, 1975, in a Methodist ceremony in their newly purchased home. She kept the name Hillary Rodham in an attempt to keep her professional life separate from Bill’s.
Her husband’s race for Congress failed in 1974, but two years later he was elected state attorney general of Arkansas. Having moved to the state capital of Little Rock, Clinton joined the politically-connected Rose Law Firm, specializing in patent infringement and intellectual property law. In 1977, she co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which allied itself with the Children’s Defense Fund. Her connections within the Democratic Party garnered her an appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation in 1978. From mid-1978 to mid-1980, she served as the board’s first female chair.
In 1978, she became First Lady of Arkansas after Bill won his first race for governor. Later that year, Clinton became the first female full partner of the Rose Law Firm. Also in 1979, the Clintons formed a business venture with James and Susan McDougal to develop vacation homes along the White River in Arkansas. The Whitewater Development Corporation would prove to be a business failure and a political nightmare for the Clintons during the 1990s.
On February 27, 1980, Clinton gave birth to her only child, Chelsea.
With his gubernatorial term lasting only two years, Bill ran for re-election in 1980, and lost. But he and Hillary returned to power in 1983 after Bill won the 1982 race for governor. For the next 10 years, the Clintons ruled the governor’s mansion, and Hillary began to refer to herself at times as “Hillary Clinton” or “Mrs. Bill Clinton” to assuage Arkansas’s conservative voters. As First Lady of Arkansas, Clinton was named chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, where she sought to implement reforms to the state’s public schools. She also fought a lengthy battle against the state’s teachers union to establish mandatory teacher testing, and was appointed chair of the Rural Health Advisory Committee. In addition, she sat on the board of directors for Wal-Mart for six years (1986-1992). She advocated for more environmentally friendly practices at Wal-Mart, but did little to try and change the company’s anti-union practices. Clinton also served on the board of directors of TCBY, the yogurt company (1985-1992), and Lafarge (1990-1992), a cement maker that was fined for pollution violations while she was a board member.
In 1991, Bill Clinton launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, elevating himself and Hillary into the national limelight. Before the key primary in New Hampshire on February 19, 1992, stories appeared in the press claiming that Bill had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers for 12 years—a claim he denied and that Hillary backed him on during an appearance on “60 Minutes.” Her support was considered pivotal in preventing Bill’s campaign from imploding and allowing him to move forward to capture the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.
During his first year in office, Bill selected Hillary as his point person to carry out an ambitious health care reform plan that would require employers to provide health coverage to employees through HMOs. The plan was attacked by the insurance industry and its supporters, some of whom labeled the plan “Hillarycare.” Despite Democrats being in control of both houses of Congress, the Clinton health care plan stalled on Capitol Hill, and by September 1994, it was abandoned by the White House. During the political battle, Hillary’s popularity plummeted—from more than 50% to the mid 30s.
Also in 1994, Paula Jones came forward with claims that Bill Clinton had sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas. She subsequently filed suit, and in 1998, the president agreed to settle the case out of court and pay Jones $850,000. During the ordeal, Hillary stood by her husband, insisting he had done nothing wrong.
In 1995, Hillary became a lightning rod for criticism from the rightwing for her book, It Takes a Village, in which she offered her ideal for raising children in America. Controversy again engulfed Clinton, and her husband, when the Whitewater land deal became the focus of an intense investigation by Republican opponents and Kenneth Starr. Hillary became the first First Lady to be subpoenaed, testifying before a federal grand jury about her role in the failed real estate venture. She was never charged with any wrongdoing.
After dodging that bullet, Clinton suffered more public humiliation when a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, came forward in January 1998 claiming she had had sex with the president in the White House several times over a two-year period. Once again, Hillary stood by her husband as he denied the claims. The scandal did not go away, however, as Republicans in Congress pursued the Lewinsky matter in an effort to destroy the Clinton presidency by trying to impeach him. Although the House approved two articles of impeachment, the Senate failed to convict Bill Clinton on either charge of perjury or obstruction of justice.
Following the Lewinsky affair, speculation was rampant in the press over whether Clinton would separate from her husband. Although she remained married, she later admitted in her autobiography (Living History) that she wanted to “wring his neck” after Bill admitted he hadlied about his extramarital affair with Lewinsky. Instead of divorcing her husband, she moved to New York and ran for the US Senate seat of retiring Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000, just as Bill’s second term was ending in the White House. She became the first First Lady to run for public office, easily defeating Republican Rick Lazio (55%-43%).
When Congress debated whether to support President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq in 2003, Clinton voted in favor of the controversial plan. She subsequently became a critic of the administration’s handling of the war, but she continued to defend her original vote, arguing that she had believed President Bush’s false charges that Saddam Hussein had wearons of mass destruction. In 2007, she voted three times to set a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
In 2006, Clinton was reelected, winning by an even wider margin than her first campaign (67%-31%) against GOP opponent John Spencer. It was not long after this that she began preparing her campaign to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. For months leading up to the primary race, Clinton was considered the frontrunner. But Democratic Sen. Barack Obama surprised Clinton and many others when he won the Iowa Caucuses on January 3, while Clinton finished third (behind John Edwards).
Although she rebounded in New Hampshire five days later, Clinton found herself in a dogfight for the nomination. Over an eleven-day period from February 9-19, Clinton lost 11 straight primaries and caucuses to Obama and, from the point of view of delegates won, the race was effectively over. However Clinton continued to challenge Obama around the country for four more months. In the end, Obama sealed the Democratic nomination. Some observers wondered if Clinton would be able to move past the bitter loss and endorse Obama for the general election. She not only publicly backed the Democratic nominee, but also gave what many analysts considered to be one of her best speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Colorado while proclaiming her support for Obama.
Following Obama’s election in November, Clinton’s name soon surfaced as a potential candidate for Secretary of State. The initial speculation was tempered by conflict-of-interest concerns over her husband’s fundraising and other activities in support of the Clinton Presidential Center and the Clinton Global Initiative. To assuage these concerns, Bill Clinton agreed to make public a list of his donors, allowing Obama to proceed with naming Hillary as his choice for Secretary of State.
During her overall political career, Hillary Clinton has concentrated on domestic issues, so her nomination to be Secretary of State was something of a surprise. However, she was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, as First Lady and as Senator, she gained considerable experience with foreign affairs.
Not known for her singing ability, Clinton actually won a Grammy in 1997—in the Best Spoken Word Album category for her reading of her book It Takes a Village.