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Hillary Rodham Clinton: The Early Years – Park Ridge to Little Rock

Updated on October 17, 2017

Hillary Rodham was born into a prosperous family in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, known as Park Ridge. She was the oldest of Hugh and Dorothy Rodham’s three children. Hillary was born on October 26, 1947. Her father owned a fabric store and her mother was a homemaker. The political climate in the house growing up was a tug of war, with her mother basically a Democrat and her father a conservative Republican and proud of it. Her father ran a tight ship around the house, and Hillary and her brothers were required to do household chores without an allowance.

Hillary got her first summer job when she was thirteen, working for the Park Ridge Park District three mornings a week supervising a small park near her house. Hillary’s mother, Dorothy, taught her to stand up for herself. When Hillary was only four years old, the neighbor girl, Suzy, was picking on her and Dorothy noticed Hillary didn’t want to go outside much. In Hillary’s autobiography, Living History, she recounts her mother’s words:

One day, I came running into the house. She stopped me. “Go back out there,” she ordered, “and if Suzy hits you, you have my permission to hit her back. You have to stand up for yourself. There’s no room in this house for cowards…” I returned a few minutes later, glowing with victory. “I can play with boys now,” I said. “And Suzy will be my friend!”

This must have been a powerful event in her life for her to remember it so many years later.

As a young girl, Hillary was active in ballet, swimming, tennis, a church group, and the Girl Scouts. Her Methodist church group was led by Reverend Don Jones, who would turn out to be very influential to Hillary’s development as a young person. Reverend Jones took the group to visit impoverished children in the inner city of Chicago. The experience was eye-opening to Hillary as she was growing up in well-to-do suburb that was over 99 percent white and had not been exposed to poverty. She also attended, with Jones, a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she grew to admire.

A Young Republican Comes of Age

Hillary was active in her high school, becoming class president, a member of the student council, and a member of the debate team. She was constantly working to hone her debate skills with her classmates; the topic didn’t really matter, she just liked to debate the issues of the day. She was also active as a Young Republican and would later become a Goldwater girl, with her cowgirl outfit and straw cowboy hat emblazoned with the slogan “AuH2O” — the chemical symbols for “gold” and “water.” Even though Barry Goldwater lost his bid to be president in 1964, she liked the Republican senator from Arizona because he was a rugged individualist who swam against the political tide.

Her hard work and good grades helped her earn a slot at the prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She graduated from Wellesley in 1969 with a degree in political science and held the distinction of being the first student to give a commencement speech. In her speech, she spoke about the turmoil that was occurring at college campus across the country, saying, “…There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it hearkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere.” Her speech caught the attention of Life magazine and they featured her in an article in the magazine; this was her first national media exposure. During her years at Wellesley, her political views began to change. No longer was she her father’s young Republican; instead, she became more socially liberal and aligned herself with the Democrats.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's Student Speech

Yale Law School and Bill Clinton

After Wellesley, she went on to Yale Law school, believing that a degree in law would give her the power to right some of the wrongs in society. The article in Life magazine made her somewhat of a minor celebrity when she entered Yale. During her time at Yale, she wrote what became a well-known paper on the rights of children and worked with impoverished youths at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Hillary became associated with Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, which was a Washington-based lobbying group. Hillary would later work for the group as a staff lawyer and board chairperson.

Hillary had only a few relationships with men up until her time at Yale. Her forceful personality scared most men off, until she met a tall young man with a beard and somewhat long hair who had a magnetic personality and a Southern drawl. That young man was Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton later wrote of his first encounter with her, “She had thick dark blond hair and wore eyeglasses and no makeup, but she conveyed a sense of strength and self-possession I had rarely seen in anyone, man or woman.” She found Bill intriguing; behind his Southern charm and good looks was a brilliant man who was not put off by her opinionated character. After a few dates, the two became a couple, spending as much time as possible together. Hillary was one year ahead of Bill at Yale and would delay her graduation by a year to keep their relationship alive.

After graduation in 1973, Bill went back to Arkansas to teach at the University of Arkansas Law School, and Hillary went to work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the Children’s Defense Fund. From there, she went to Washington, DC, to serve as a legal assistant to the congressional committee that was considering whether to recommend impeachment for President Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Her work on the committee became a moot point as President Nixon decided to resign rather than face the impeachment trial.

Bill and Hillary Clinton's first house in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Bill and Hillary Clinton's first house in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The Move to Arkansas

After failing the District of Columbia bar exam and passing the Arkansas exam, she made a key decision in her life, and in August of 1974 Hillary moved to Arkansas to take a position teaching at the University of Arkansas School of Law. When Hillary made the decision to move to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be with Bill, her best friend told her, “You’re crazy, Hillary. What are you doing? You’re leaving this fabulous career in Washington, where you’re in line to be in political life.” And she said, “Bill Clinton is going to be president someday, and I’m going to marry him.” Her friend said, “Does he know that?” And she said, “Not yet.” It would take years before Hillary’s predictions would ring true, but they did!

She was a very strict and organized instructor, whereas Bill was much more laid back in his approach to teaching. After repeated proposals of marriage from Bill, Hillary finally agreed and they were married on October 11, 1975, in a simple ceremony at their home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In an interview years later, Hillary said she was “terrified” about marrying Bill because she worried that her identity would get “lost in the wake of Bill’s force-of-nature personality.” With both teaching at the school, money was tight, and Hillary went with her mother to Dillard’s department store the night before her wedding and bought her wedding dress off-the-rack. Hillary was very much into feminism at the time and refused to take Clinton as her last name; instead, she was known as Hillary Rodham after the marriage. Bill didn’t seem to mind as he understood her strong convictions.

US president Jimmy Carter and Governor-Elect Bill Clinton in 1978.
US president Jimmy Carter and Governor-Elect Bill Clinton in 1978.

A Political Life Begins

Hillary continued to teach and was the Director of the Legal Aid Clinic at the University from 1974 to 1977. Meanwhile, Bill was starting his political career. In 1974, he ran for a seat in Congress but lost. In 1976, Bill was elected Arkansas Attorney General, which required that the Clintons move to the state’s capital of Little Rock, Arkansas. In early 1977, Hillary joined the prestigious and influential Rose Law Firm as an associate. At the law firm, she specialized in patent infringement and intellectual property law while doing pro bono work in child advocacy cases.

During her time at Rose she developed a close working friendship with one of the partners, Vince Foster. Foster, who was a childhood friend of Bill’s, would figure into the world of the Clintons for years to come, ultimately with a tragic ending.

Working to improve the lives of children was very important to her, and in 1977 she cofounded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a state-level alliance with the Children’s Defense Fund. That same year, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation, where she served until the end of 1981. During her time as chairman of the organization, funding for the Corporation was increased from $90 million to $300 million. She successfully fought President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to reduce the funding and change the nature of the organization.

Hillary became the First Lady of Arkansas when Bill became the governor of the state in 1978. Bill appointed her as chair of the Rural Health Advisory Committee, where she was able to expand medical facilities in Arkansas’ poorest areas without affecting the fees doctors charged.

After less than three years at the Rose Law Firm, she was made full partner in the firm. Bill’s salary was less than $40,000 per year as governor and Hillary was always on the lookout for income generating opportunities. Under the guidance of a friend, Hillary began speculating in cattle futures and after ten months, her initial investment of $1000 had turned into nearly $100,000. The couple also invested with their friends, Jim and Susan McDougal, in property in the Arkansas Ozarks with the idea of subdividing the land for vacation homes. The two couples formed the Whitewater Development Corporation, but as the interest rates rose to nearly 20 percent during the late 1970s, the demand for vacation property dried up and the Clintons ending up losing around $50,000. This failed investment would cost the Clintons more than money, as they would see over a decade later.

The year 1980 was a year of highs and lows for the Clintons as Hillary gave birth to their daughter Chelsea on February 27, and in November, Bill lost the race for governor. At that time, Arkansas governors were elected for two-year terms. During an interview with Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle, he asked Bill’s mother, Virginia Kelly, what she thought of Hillary when she first met her. She paused and said, “Damn Yankee, I guess!” Virginia blamed Hillary for her son’s 1980 loss, saying that half of the voters in Arkansas, most of whom were socially conservative, thought the Clintons were unmarried and were living in sin in the governor’s mansion. “The only time she got weepy was when she talked about Bill Clinton losing 1980,” Hines remembered. “This was something that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

President Reagan with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at a dinner in Honor of State Governors in the East Room in 1983.
President Reagan with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at a dinner in Honor of State Governors in the East Room in 1983.

The First Lady of Arkansas: Mrs. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton couldn’t stay away from politics and in 1982 he ran for the governorship again. Being politically astute, Hillary dyed her hair and exchanged her thick glasses for contact lens, doing everything she could to not be the reason for another defeat. The day after Bill announced his plans to return to the governor’s mansion, Hillary told reporters, “I’ll be Mrs. Bill Clinton.” Her makeover made her look more like a refined Southern lady, ready to host teas and be a proper first lady for Arkansas. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place and Bill and Hillary were back in the governor’s mansion and wouldn’t leave until Bill became president in 1993.

During Bill’s subsequent terms, Hillary was very active in Arkansas politics. She was named chair of the Arkansas Education Standards Committee in 1983, where she sought to reform the state’s court-sanctioned public school system — which happened to be one of the worst in the nation. In one of her more controversial moves, she fought and won a prolonged battle with the Arkansas Education Association to establish mandatory teacher testing and state standards for curriculum and classroom size. Her work toward improving the educational system in the state made her highly visible as a first lady. Many approved of Hillary’s work and she was named Arkansas Woman of the Year in 1983 and Arkansas Mother of the Year in 1984.

In addition to her political activities in the state, she continued her work at Rose Law Firm, where she made a very respectable salary of $200,000 per year, which was many times more than her husband earned as governor. The firm considered her a “rainmaker” as she brought in big ticket clients to the firm through her connections on corporate boards and her political ties. There were accusations of conflicts of interest as the Rose Law Firm did business with the state of Arkansas; the Clintons rebuffed the charges by saying that state fees were segregated by the firm before her compensation was calculated.

The story of Hillary Rodham Clinton would move to the national stage when her husband announced his candidacy for President of the United States in 1992.

References

Brower, K.A. First Women – The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies. Harper. 2016.

Clinton, H.R. Living History. Simon & Schuster. 2003.

Swain, S. and C-SPAN. First Ladies - Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. PublicAffairs. 2015.

Matuz, R. The Presidents Fact Book – The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.

West, Doug. Bill Clinton: A Short Biography: 42nd President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2017.

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    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 2 months ago from Florida

      Unfortunately, the Clintons are example A of how politics can corrupt absolutely and completely.

      Whatever their initial goals, if they were idealistic and lofty (not saying they were, just that they could have been when they were young) were washed away by decades of dealings with the most corrupt and criminal elements in existence.

      There is a reason why they are worth hundreds of millions, via different charities and partnerships, and properties owned. And its not because they ever held jobs that paid them large sums of money, or created a business made them millionaires, solely as political figures they have made themselves wealthy beyond most people's dreams.

      That's all I need to know. The Kennedy's made their millions in past generations, the Bush family as well, Trump made his billions in business... the Clintons, through politics and backroom deals.

    • dougwest1 profile image
      Author

      Doug West 2 months ago from Raymore, MO

      Everyone has an opinion about Hillary - good or bad. In about a week, I am going to post the second section of my biography of Hillary covering her years in the White House.

    • Sharlee01 profile image

      Sharon Stajda 2 months ago from Shelby Township Michigan

      Well written. Interesting article, on a very controversial woman.

    • RJ Schwartz profile image

      Ralph Schwartz 2 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

      I believe you failed to mention a few detail of Mrs. Clinton's tenure at the Rose Law firm. Federal bank regulators called the financial deal involving Hillary and the Rose Law Firm “a sham.” And what about those missing documents related to Whitewater that miraculously appeared in her possession the entire time the FBI was looking for them. And we cannot omit good old Vince Foster, rest his soul. And of course there was the first of many "hard drive" smashing incidents once they found Vince's hard drive, which mysteriously went missing too (found later in another location damaged beyond repair.)