Hillary Clinton at Yale Law School.
“Much of what I believe, and much of what I have worked for at stake in this election, is directly related to my time at the law school.”
– Hillary Clinton, in an early October, 1992 speech at Yale University.
Indeed, while attending Yale Law School in New Haven, CT, Hillary Rodham was introduced to the problems of children and the poor, developed a sense of activism, honed her leadership skills and even met her future husband. So it’s altogether appropriate that we should want to know more about Hillary’s time in New Haven.
Hillary Rodham was already something of a celebrity when she entered Yale Law School in the fall of 1969. Just a few months before, she had been chosen by her classmates at Wellesley College to be the first ever student commencement speaker, and some of her comments about the Vietnam War made national news.
Moreover, in the second semester of her first year at Yale, she moderated a large and volatile meeting of law school students over some hot political issue of the time —— whether it was about Kent State, the Cambodian invasion or the Black Panthers trial none of Hillary’s law school classmates can now remember. What they do remember is Hillary’s poise and negotiating skills — and as Hillary’s law school friend Carolyn Ellis Staton recently recalled, “how unusual it was for a first year woman to be conducting a meeting that was full of second and third year students and men.” In fact, only 15 percent of Hillary’s own class were women. No wonder that Bill Clinton has called the Hillary he knew in law school “a star.”
Bill Clinton arrived on campus in the fall of 1970 and promptly became involved in Connecticut Democrat Joseph Duffey’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Former classmate and Scripps College president Nancy Bekavac notes that “Bill was clearly one of the figures in his class and Hillary was in hers.” So they couldn’t have helped but to know of one another. Some friends say it was more like mutual but distant admiration. It was Hillary who made the first move, walking up to Bill in the law school library one night and saying, “If you’re going to keep looking at me and I’m going to keep looking back, we ought to at least know each other. I’m Hillary Rodham.”
Her first year in law school Hillary had lived in an impersonal, 200-unit high rise apartment building in downtown New Haven. Hillary’s first semester roommate, Jody Adams Weisbrod shared that apartment with Hillary their first semester at Yale and recalls her as “a very easy roommate” if not a great housekeeper. “But then nobody was, including me,” Weisbrod said.
After a whirlwind courtship in the spring of 1970 (Bill’s first year roommate Don Pogue characterized the relationship as “electric” and Bekavac said simply, “Bill fell hard.”), Hillary and Bill moved together into a 7-room apartment in a tiny Federal style house not far from the Yale campus. Gregory Craig, a 1972 law school graduate who had the place before Bill and Hillary, said it was far from presidential. “It was a very run-down primitive apartment, noisy and about $50 cheaper than the “more civilized” places in the same neighborhood, he said. He also said the apartment came with two pieces of built-in student-issue furniture: a wooden picnic-like table and “a huge hunk of foam rubber” that served as a platform bed.
Not surprisingly, law school friends said most of the law school parties and social gatherings Bill and Hillary attended took place elsewhere, although they said the couple was social and enjoyed participating in the political discussions that were a staple of the times. Staton remembers how she and Hillary used to go to a New Haven dairy bar for milkshakes. Perhaps to work the ice cream off, Hillary also used to “drag” Staton “to the Yale gym. She exercised before it became voguish,” Staton said.
At the time, Hillary had long brown hair, thick glasses that darkened in the sun and a favorite pair of blue bell-bottom pants. She never wore make-up and rarely wore a skirt but that hardly set her apart from the other female law students. “The whole notion of make-up — it just wasn’t where our minds were at the time,” Staton said.
From very early on in her law school career, Hillary’s mind was on children and children’s rights. Hillary had read a Time magazine article about civil—rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman her first semester in law school and went to a speech Edelman gave at the law school shortly afterwards. After the talk, Hillary asked Edelman if she could work for her that summer. With the help of some grant money, Hillary spent the summer working with Edelman on behalf of poor migrant families. “I came back to the law school with a growing commitment to children, particularly poor children,” Hillary said during her October visit to Yale. And she quickly enrolled in courses on children and family law.
In part to satisfy this interest in children and in part to be with Bill while he finished his last year of law school, Hillary signed up for a year of observing and working with children at the Yale Child Study Center. The director of the Center at the time, Albert Solnit, remembers Hillary as “bright, pleasant, articulate and dedicated. She had a good sense of humor and related well to children,” said Solnit, now commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health. When Solnit, child psychoanalyst Anna Freud and law school teacher Joseph Goldstein published the well-known “Beyond the Best Interests of the Child” in 1973, Hillary was one of five people named in the book’s acknowledgement for helpful “critical comments in various drafts of the manuscript.”
Bill was in Texas working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign that fall of 1972. But nobody remembers Hillary pining away. “I’ve never known her not to have a very full, rich life,” Staton said. Bill and Hillary also went their separate ways after law school graduation: he to his native Arkansas, she to work for Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, then based in Cambridge, Mass.
Bekavac said she was shocked to hear that, a year later, Hillary had moved to sleepy Arkansas. “We could barely imagine her being there,” Bekavac said. Others were similarly surprised to learn that Hillary had taken up with a corporate law firm — for most of those who knew her best at Yale saw her destined for a high-profile job in the public interest.
They were right — it just took 20 years after their law school graduation for their prediction to come true.
By Carolyn Wyman for HCQ