Who Is She?

Other women bump up against the glass ceiling at work; Hillary did so in a far harder place–her marriage.

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In August 1987, American Bar Association President Robert MacCrate embarked on a mission he knew would make many fellow lawyers hot under their buttoned-down collars. After years of denial, the very male, very stuffy ABA was taking on the painful subject of sexism in the legal profession–in law firms, classrooms, courtrooms, and, ultimately, in the law itself. The dozen or so members of the new Commission on Women in the Profession ran the ideological gamut from Southern conservative to ardent feminist. Now MacCrate needed a chair who could bring them together and push them hard, yet be on the same professional wavelength as all the swaggering male egotists who didn’t want to hear how mean they were.

So he placed a call to the genteel Rose law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Hillary Rodham Clinton was a ninety-thousand-dollar- plus-a-year senior partner specializing in commercial litigation. But the woman who a few years later would redefine the role of the American political spouse and, in the process, be branded a left-wing radical by some, a feminist heroine by others, surprised him. She said no.

“Her initial response was that this was not the kind of thing she had been doing,” MacCrate says. “I think she was reluctant to become a feminist activist.” Commission member Lynn Hecht Shafran, attorney for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, recalls, “She said she didn’t want to take on the position because she didn’t see what the problems were. She had managed to make her own way, and she was expecting [most of the complaints to come from] women who hadn’t been very successful and had a few sour-grape stories.”

Sexual harassment and the glass ceiling were not barriers the first lady of Arkansas had encountered in her workplace. Nor was the one- time Goldwater Girl comfortable in the victim mode–her style was too sensible. Besides, deep in her well-educated, upper-middle-class, Methodist soul, she knew she was too fortunate to feel sorry for herself or people like her. Clinton was more interested in being a role model for overachievement. “Which was exactly why I wanted her,” MacCrate says. “I tried to relate it to how significant it could be to other women to permit them to do what she had done. Finally, she succumbed.”

Much has been made of the enigma that is Hillary Rodham Clinton and of the significance of a first lady who doubles as a powerful policymaker. But for all the talk about what Hillary’s role means, few have looked closely at what Hillary has actually done during her career. Her five years chairing the ABA panel have been largely overlooked, as have several other pivotal assignments. Examined closely, this work history offers a revealing glimpse into the essential Hillary. Since the transformation of the $900 billion health-care industry has been entrusted to her care, that record is well worth pondering.

The ABA Case

“Lawyers are problem solvers,” says Nancy Bekavac, a friend from Yale who is now president of Scripps College. “You pay attention to the procedure before even getting to the merits: What kind of evidence do we need? What is the range of responsibilities? What are the liabilities? What’s the precedent?” At the ABA, Hillary quickly saw that success with a bunch of lawyers lay in treating gender bias less as a cause than as a case, with demonstrations, citations, and proofs.

Years of heading up committees had taught her how to coax people into getting along. “She could see what five or six people who thought they disagreed with each other really had in common,” recalls member Jamienne Studley. Says Executive Director Elaine Weiss, “A good leader lets the men feel comfortable enough to say, ‘Maybe I’m a racist, sexist pig, but I disagree with that.”’ Through it all she was funny and down-to-earth. One result: “I think the commission members will be friends for life,” Weiss says.

The panel’s first report was a one-page resolution asking members to condemn gender bias in the profession at large, attached to a skimpy- looking document that summed up the problem in language meant to educate, not blame. It passed unanimously. All the while, Hillary Clinton was on the stump, declaring that gender bias was bad for men and business as well as for women.

“She didn’t come at it with the attitude of ‘I’m a feminist,'” says Weiss. “Her approach was, ‘I’m a lawyer like everyone else, and let me tell you what women lawyers are experiencing.’ She is far from a knee-jerk liberal. Her style and her strategy work because she represents the mainstream viewpoint.”

“I regard her as making an epic change in the position of women in the ABA and therefore in the larger profession,” MacCrate says. Yet, when examined closely, Clinton’s tangible accomplishments amounted to little more than a few reports and manuals and a lot of speeches–a good deal less than we will expect of the architect of health-care reform. Her main strength was communicating why the status quo had to change, and making her listeners believe that change was possible– beginning a process that made it inevitable. She embodied that future; she was her own most eloquent message.

What He Sees Is What We Get

The look in Bill Clinton’s eyes at this briefing just five days into his term is not an expression we have ever seen on the face of an American president speaking about his wife. His matter-of-fact mixture of pride and confidence is all the more striking when we consider how much he seems unsure of already– later today, he has meetings about gays in the military and a replacement for Zoe Baird. But now he’s explaining why he has decided to put Hillary in charge of health-care reform. “She’s better at organizing and leading people from a complex beginning to a certain end than anybody I’ve ever worked with in my life,” he says. Meanwhile, aides are handing out decade-old clippings about her work accomplishments.

Hillary, wrapped in a heavy wool cardigan one might save for doing the laundry, slouches at the long table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House along with the other members of the new task force. She listens alertly but with a studied coolness, sometimes whispering to her neighbor, hardly acknowledging her husband’s praise. Although she resents how much notice is paid to her hair, some will think it significant that her black headband (banned during the campaign as too yuppie or harsh) is defiantly in place again. After months of tea- and-cookie apologies, of aides playing down “Elect one, get one free,” the headband seems to announce that the old Hillary–the take-charge, glutton-for-punishment policymaker–is back. As if anyone had really doubted she would be.

“I think that in the coming months,” Bill says, “the American people will learn, as the people of our state did, that we have a first lady of many talents, but who most of all can bring people together around complex and difficult issues to hammer out consensus and get things done.”

The president’s words go down smoothly, yet they present a curious set of contradictions. On the one hand, he invites reporters to look at his wife’s professional record more closely. On the other, he waves them away, flourishing one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the vague specific. He does not want anyone making the awkward but entirely appropriate observation that establishing a neonatal unit or organizing a conference is hardly equivalent to instituting managed competition, slashing drug costs, or limiting medical-malpractice claims. He seems to praise Hillary’s accomplishments, but closer analysis shows he’s really praising her skill at the process of accomplishing–the way she can break down big issues and problems into manageable chunks and persuade people by making them feel included.

Bill suggests that she has other important functions besides achieving a legislative package: to embody a political message, and to serve as his human flak jacket. Hillary’s appointment is a signal to the American public of “how passionately I am committed to doing something about health-care reform,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hillary sits there, her face majestic and slightly peeved, looking like she just wants all these reporters to leave so she can get to work. Does the woman who was so effective at the ABA have her own compelling message to project? Does the fact that she is doing something radical in assuming such a powerful job mean that we aren’t supposed to be upset if what she accomplishes is far from sweeping? Who is Hillary really working for–the American people or Bill Clinton? Is she redefining the role of the political wife, or falling prey to it?

The Glass-Ceiling Marriage

In 1969 Hillary Rodham gave a speech at her graduation from Wellesley that earned her a photo in Life magazine. “We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands,” she said. “But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life . . . is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”

Twenty-three years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton said something that would have seemed nonsensical to her younger self. “For goodness sakes,” the presidential candidate’s wife declared in the same session with reporters in which she made the famous cookies-and-tea gaffe, “you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t represent banks.”

In the distance between those two statements, many a Yale Law School graduate’s career could be measured. But in Hillary’s case, the gap between them isn’t so much about the loss of idealism as about the thwarting of personal ambition and opportunities for achievement.

The twenty-one year old who struggled to articulate her yearnings was so smart, so confident, so well-intentioned and -credentialed that she seemed destined to be one of the leaders of her generation. “She had a very bright political future of her own,” a Yale Law School classmate says wistfully. But the mature woman who tried to answer questions about her work last spring was married to one of the leaders of her generation.

Other women bump up against the glass ceiling at work; Hillary Clinton did so in a far more difficult place–her marriage. It wasn’t just a question of following Bill Clinton to Arkansas when she could have gone to Washington or New York. Starting from 1976, a year after their marriage, when he was elected attorney general, her choices about work became more and more limited by the realities of being married to an important politician in a small, conservative state. She couldn’t take a public-interest job lest she come into conflict with him. Even as a private attorney, she had to be careful about conflict of interest and about getting involved in controversial cases. Although she was an excellent trial lawyer with a zest for winning, her political schedule meant that only rarely could she be the lead lawyer on a complicated case. “She was hamstrung,” says John Brummett, an Arkansas columnist who’s been watching her career for more than a decade. “Almost every way she turned, there was something that kept her from doing everything she might do.” Her earnings were limited, too: while some Rose partners earned up to $300,000 a year, she usually fell in the $70,000 to $100,000 range.

Studying her resume, one is struck by how her career resembles a patchwork stitched from the remnants left to her once Bill Clinton’s career had been cut out. The pattern gives a hint of how frustrated she must have been at times, but also shows a tremendous resourcefulness. The guiding principle, as Elaine Weiss discovered when her husband decided to run for office as an alderman in Chicago, was a kind of emotional self-preservation: “Hillary told me, ‘Don’t ever lose your own identity in this process. Don’t lose yourself to your husband’s career.'”

The center of Hillary Clinton’s professional life was the poker-faced red-brick building that housed the prestigious Rose firm, which she joined in 1977. Despite her later comment about banks, she represented relatively few of them; her specialty was intellectual-property law– trademark infringements, etc. Her reputation was formidable. “She had the best judgment of anyone there,” says a former partner, Carol Arnold. She had “the jugular-vein instinct,” says Little Rock attorney William Wilson, “not . . . vicious, but . . . going to the essence.”

Throughout her career, Clinton formed many friendships with women, but in the courtroom, in business, and in politics, she worked most closely with men. Some were threatened, but many others were smitten, in awe of how she pulled together all the elements of her life with determination and efficiency, but also with humor and grace. Several judges are said to have adored her. “She doesn’t defer to men,” says Rudy Moore, a lawyer and judge in Fayetteville who was Bill Clinton’s 1978 campaign manager and first-term chief of staff. “She engages them on their own level. She’s very gracious, but it’s not an obvious type of charm. She uses her analytical skills.”

“I don’t think women see it. Men do,” says Sid Johnson, past president of the Arkansas Education Association. “I’m trying not to use the word ‘sexy.’ She’s not a sex bomb, but she’s a very attractive person to many men. She has a sparkle, but she’s not flirtatious. When she walks along, she almost has a regal bearing about her, much more royal than Princess Diana.”

For all this admiration and power, her Rose firm work was not enough to satisfy her yearning to do good. She founded several nonprofit organizations, such as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and joined innumerable boards and task forces. She continued her close relationship, begun at Yale, with the Children’s Defense Fund. Jimmy Carter appointed her to the board of the Legal Services Corporation in 1977, and she soon became the first woman elected its chair. But these organizations, too, satisfied only pieces of her ambition, perhaps because they were essentially bureaucracies whose paths had largely been determined by other people.

In 1983, when Bill Clinton appointed Hillary as head of his committee to establish educational standards for Arkansas, she found her mission. The period preceding her appointment had been the most turbulent of their marriage. In addition to Bill’s 1980 election defeat, rumors about his affairs had begun to circulate widely. One of the most difficult parts for Hillary “was to have made all those sacrifices for him and then to be blamed for his defeat,” John Brummett says. Still, she did what she had to do to help him get reelected–plotted strategy, took his last name, took a leave of absence from the firm. Voters responded well, and by 1983 they were ready to accept Hillary in a policy role.

The Arkansas School Case

It was hard to spend much time in Arkansas and not notice its abysmal school system and the low expectations that were both a prime cause and a convenient excuse. The state was poor and vociferously antitax; because businesses had so much clout, the industrial tax base was meager, and funds were spread thin–even the dinkiest town had its own school district, 371 in all. The dropout rate was high; teachers’ salaries, a rock-bottom fifteen thousand dollars a year.

The education package is probably the closest parallel to health-care reform in Hillary’s portfolio, and therefore deserves special scrutiny. The elaborate strategy the Clintons devised was the very essence of what Brummett calls their “mainstream pragmatic progressivism.” In trying to appeal to the middle class, they treated education like a consumer product. Improvement would mean taxes on businesses and middle-class voters, and educational standards would be pitched as a way of giving them something for their money. Consolidating districts was probably the key to real reform, but it was politically impossible; forcing districts to meet standards, such as offering advanced math, science, foreign languages, and kindergarten, was a back-door means of encouraging the poorest ones to merge voluntarily.

Once this strategy was worked out, Hillary’s job was twofold: As chair of the committee, she would hammer out a consensus about what the educational standards should be. And in public, she was to do much the same thing with the Arkansas people, to communicate and to listen, to radiate purpose.

Hillary threw herself into this work in a way she had done with nothing else in her career. The commission held hearings in every one of the state’s seventy-five counties, where hundreds of people would show up at school gymnasiums to ask questions or air complaints for five or six hours at a stretch. “Unlike Bill Clinton, she is direct,” says Paul Root, Bill’s former high school history teacher, now chair of the education department at Ouachita Baptist University. “She will tell you exactly what she thinks at any time on any subject. People really responded to that.”

But her performance was not flawless. One person who was not charmed was the Arkansas Education Association’s executive director at the time, Kai Erickson, who got into a battle with Hillary–about a one- time teacher test–that nearly overshadowed the whole reform movement and soured relations with teachers, perhaps unnecessarily, for years. “It appeared she pretty much had in mind what she planned to do,” Erickson says. “She was a little brusque. I thought the issues and the challenges would cause one who was not an expert to be more tentative than she was.” Even the effusive Sid Johnson, of the Arkansas Education Association, was flabbergasted when Hillary announced that there would be teacher testing even though it had not been one of the commission’s recommendations. (“She snookered us good,” he says. “Bob Dole better watch out–she’ll snooker him too if she can.”) Erickson says she made teachers, who had done more than any other group to press for reform, into the movement’s scapegoats: “I was feeling the same as I suppose the doctors do now.”

In the end, the campaign was only a partial success. Hillary fulfilled her role–including a bravura legislature appearance that led one redneck lawmaker to declare that voters had elected the wrong Clinton–but the teacher-testing issue, which was viewed as a bone to businesses and parents to give them accountability in return for a tax hike, did not stop businesses from lobbying lawmakers. As a result, individuals bore the entire brunt of the costs through a regressive one-cent rise in the sales tax.

More significantly, the money hasn’t bought many measurable improvements. Schools in Arkansas are better than they would have been, but only in a state like Arkansas would such a minor package– improved curriculum, student testing, higher salaries–be labeled “reform.” While it’s true that SAT scores are up, only the top 6 percent of Arkansas students take the test, and other indicators haven’t changed since 1972. According to 1991- 1992 statistics, spending per capita on public schools has risen from fiftieth to forty-eighth in the nation, but the state has slipped from fortieth to forty-first place in spending per capita at colleges.

Blant Hurt, a conservative columnist for the Arkansas Business Journal, is among the disappointed: “My problem with Hillary has been that she has this [reputation] of being a reformer . . . and that is a real stretch. I don’t think people are looking at the facts–it’s rhetoric. She’s a good speaker. She’s very smart. People want to believe she’s going to fix health care. But they’re going to be sorely disappointed, because there’s not a salient fact that shows a thing has been accomplished [in Arkansas].”

Former Clinton education aide Don Ernst, who has since gone to work for school reform at the national level, acknowledges these limits, but adds, “Hillary used this as an opportunity to engage the people of Arkansas for the first time in a real conversation about education. To me, that was the most significant accomplishment.”

The Child-Welfare Case

In 1991 a handful of Arkansas legal-aid groups filed a lawsuit against Bill Clinton over an issue that Hillary had made one of the focal points of her nonprofit work, child welfare. While she was going around the country talking about the need to improve the lives of poor children, “basically, the state’s child- welfare system was an abysmal failure,” says John Brummett.

According to William Grimm, a lawyer for the National Center for Youth Law, which coordinated the suit, organizations had been complaining to Governor Clinton for years about the neglect of abused children and the lax oversight of foster-care providers. But Bill (and Hillary) kept concentrating on more politically popular problems like education. Among the groups finally joining the battle were Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Ozark Legal Services, both of which Hillary had helped establish. “There were many ironies here,” Grimm notes wryly.

What finally got the Clintons’ attention was the upcoming election–a settlement was reached five days after the New Hampshire primary. (“I wish all the people I sued were running for president,” Grimm jokes.) But in June, after the issue was safely out of the public eye, the governor’s office decided to appeal the consent decree, arguing that what it had agreed to do was tougher than federal law requires. The appeal was sent back to the lower courts on a technicality.

The lawsuit highlights how fundamentally middle-class Hillary’s best- known work has been, whether on education or at the ABA. And it shows how her involvement in issues of poverty, such as child welfare or legal aid, have been driven largely by her own needs to be a leader. Hillary has always been more moderate than people on either the left or the right have wanted to admit. She was, after all, raised as a Republican. And although the Vietnam War provoked a change in her politics, as it did for many in her generation, it had little effect on her core values, which remain traditional, if not conservative.

The child-welfare lawsuit also shows the limits of Hillary’s effectiveness as a policymaker when she works for, and with, her husband–something that is of crucial importance to the country as we contemplate her role in health-care reform. No matter how accomplished and brilliant she is, or what she wants, or what she has done, or what she stands for, in the end it is her husband’s agenda–and career– that always comes first.

Visionary Without a Vision

There was a story going around Washington earlier this year that Bob Dole was trying to keep his Republican senators away from Hillary Clinton. He was afraid they would come away with the same reaction Alan Simpson is reported to have had after encountering the first lady: “That is the most incredible woman I have ever met.” The hard-bitten Senate minority leader is said to have been almost as impressed, although he is loath to admit it. Maybe he has recognized in her something of himself. “She’s got a darker side,” says her old friend Rudy Moore. “For example, she knows that Bob Dole’s the enemy, and always will be the enemy. But on the other hand, she’s smart enough to see that she can deal with him on an equal basis.”

In the months since Bill Clinton handed Hillary the health-care-reform assignment, her stock in Washington has gone way up and his has gone way down. Her role has been the same as in much of her earlier work with Bill. According to Ron Pollack of the consumer group Families USA, “She goes into the lion’s den and makes converts, or at least she really reduces the intensity of the opposition.” Hillary is seen as more blunt than Bill and less likely to try to wriggle out of a position once pinned down; in a city of workaholics, her energy and determination win raves. She’s proven herself again to be a quick study on policy issues (one lobbyist says she can read and absorb a complicated document so quickly that “it really freaks [people] out”). Politically, she has incorporated the lessons of Bill’s mistakes on the budget package into her role as health-care reformer–most notably, courting the Republicans from the beginning, staying focused on one issue, and taking her message on the road as much as possible.

The message, too, has echoes of her speeches to the ABA or to Arkansas parents: the status quo isn’t good enough, we need to do better, we need to fix these problems. It is not a message about social revolution (nor is the program the Clintons have come up with), but rather about giving more people access to what many insured Americans already have. If anything, one of its chief purposes is to assure listeners that health-care reform will be as painless and cost- effective as possible, whether those listeners run big corporations or work at minimum wage. It is a message that, while going beyond politics, is fundamentally political in that it stresses what is possible and necessary; at its most soaring, it could be described as rational. Hillary states it well, but one yearns for something more from her.

And though she gets high marks as a spokeswoman, the task-force process, with its five-hundred-plus members, is widely criticized as “a waste of time” and “a complete fraud,” to quote Sidney Wolfe, who heads the Public Citizen Health Research Group, which, like many consumer groups, favors a single-payer, Canadian-style system– something the Clintons dismissed out-of-hand as politically impractical. “When you decide on day zero that you’re not going to get rid of the health-insurance industry, that’s not reform,” says Wolfe.

Other critics charge that the task force dithered too long, provoking people to begin asking hard questions before the administration could provide hard answers.

Inside the Beltway, people tend to blame other task force leaders or Bill Clinton for these errors, but Hillary’s past work shows that she and her husband are usually on the same wavelength. Both are political moderates and pragmatists; both aim for the middle; both have a healthy respect for business. Both are compromisers: Bill because he’s weak and eager to please; Hillary because she believes in process and because she’s good at it–it is a source of power for her.

Hillary’s speech in Austin, Texas, just before her father’s death in April, revealed much about her lack of vision. Her demeanor–that of an anguished daughter struggling to make sense of the philosophical and emotional issues her father’s illness had raised for her close- knit family–was raw and sincere in a way that her policy talks have not been. But her statements about America’s “sleeping sickness of the soul” and the need for a “politics of meaning” were unformed and sticky enough to make a lot of people squirm. When she said that “we lack, at some core level, meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively,” she sounded very much like the twenty-one-year-old Wellesley commencement speaker, well-intentioned but without a clear notion of how to accomplish the good she aspires to, or even what that good might be.

Earlier this year, Hillary told a reporter, “I’ve often thought of myself and my friends as transitional, maybe more sure of where we were coming from than where we are going.” In many ways, the same could be said of her work on a range of issues, including, now, health-care reform. She and Bill are not going to save the world or radically reform the health-care system–that is going to depend on the rest of us. Relying on the power of their good intentions to challenge successfully a system of entrenched power would be naive and, ultimately, disappointing.

What the Clintons have done, however, is to begin the process of change. Maybe Bill was right in that first press conference: the most important thing about Hillary’s reform role is that she is involved in the process. The most inspiring thing about her is not that she cares but that she tries. And the same can be said of Bill. Theirs isn’t a feminist message, nor a radical one, nor even an idealistic one. But it’s a human message, and that’s something worth holding on to in these cynical times.

Nina Martin writes often about legal and health issues.


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