Hillary’s Wellesley Cohort: Snared by the ‘Double Bind’

Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age With Hillary’s Class–Wellesley ’69 , by Miriam Horn. Times Books, 328 pages, $24.

The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton , by Joyce Milton. William Morrow, 435 pages, $27.

“Don’t be afraid to reveal your complexity,” Louise Carter wrote in the Wellesley alumnae magazine in a collective offering of advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton from her classmates; “Thanks for being me–in a higher place,” wrote Jayne Baker Abrams. Although Miriam Horn’s carefully written and intelligent book, Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age With Hillary’s Class–Wellesley ’69 , is not so much about Hillary Rodham Clinton as about a dozen or so of her classmates and how they have fared 30 years after their graduation, Hillary is very much present in the book; she is the sous-conversation ; the one everyone compares herself to, or tries to measure up to; and without her the book would probably not have been written.

Rebels in White Gloves begins with a description of Dorothy Devine’s wedding outfit, her senior year at Wellesley: “a white tulle veil and a moiré silk wedding gown with a high Victorian collar and micro-miniskirt, daisies in her hair.” The fashion mix-up is a symbol for what will be the issue for these women–the duality of their role as well as their ambivalence toward coming of age in the 60’s–and the book’s theme. The marriage didn’t last. Dorothy Devine (some of the women have almost scarily Dickensian names: Wanderer, Swain) leaves her husband, goes to Cuba to enlist in Fidel Castro’s Venceremos Brigade, returns home, is jobless, lives in a commune, then is homeless. Finally, Dorothy (probably the most radical member of the class) finds satisfaction as a graphic designer and participates in a neighborhood group to protect the environment; she finds spiritual peace by joining a circle of women who at various specific times of the year “celebrate the goddess” in themselves.

In every chapter and on nearly every page, we watch as Hillary’s classmates struggle with what Matina Horner, president of Radcliffe, described in 1971 as a “double bind” facing the bright young graduate: “If she fails, she is not living up to her own standard; if she succeeds, she is not living up to societal expectations about the female role.” Speaking of Radcliffe, my alma mater, it is interesting to see, in comparison to other colleges and universities, how behind the times Wellesley College was in 1969: The women did indeed have to wear white gloves on special occasions; they had to wear skirts to dinner; and the five black students, the Jews and the Catholics had to room together–i.e., separate from the others. At a “marriage” lecture, “The many young women in the audience who wanted to know what an orgasm was were chastised. ‘This is a medical question and will not be answered here. Go to the infirmary.'”

The women of the Wellesley Class of ’69 were graduating at a difficult time: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, student protests, a proliferation of drugs, the sexual revolution. To make matters worse or more complicated, most of the women were unhappy or felt insecure at the outset: Either they were too rich or not rich enough, too religious (Hillary’s high school newspaper predicted she would become a nun called “Sister Frigidaire”) or not religious enough; either they were virgins or too promiscuous, and so on. Gone completely were simpler days marked by fewer choices: Martha McClintock’s grandmother went to Wellesley already engaged to marry a farmer; she “took astronomy because she figured in the country she’d see the stars and could teach her children their names.”

Of the 430 women in the class of ’69 we learn how many got married, how many divorced, remarried, how many had children (23 percent of the class are childless compared to only 9 percent of the class of ’59, but less than the class of ’79, who in 1994 were 42 percent childless); Ms. Horn even goes so far as to document the level of sexual satisfaction among these women (she mercifully refrains from mentioning Hillary): “A third of the women, both married and unmarried, report a disappointing or inactive sex life. One in three married women in the class has been unfaithful. Others have every reason to be: An anonymous correspondent to the 20th-reunion book wrote, ‘I have been faithful all my marriage, but my husband and I always had too little sex for me, 2x a month and now there has been none for nine months or so.'” The most appealing aspect of this book is the candor with which the women speak of their lives and the non-intrusive and nonjudgmental way in which Ms. Horn reports her findings.

Of the classmates interviewed for this book, only two Wellesley women appear truly “successful.” Both are doctors. According to Ms. Horn, the key to these two women’s success seems to be flexibility in terms of where and how much they work (their husbands, too, have flexible jobs)–and money. I am not sure how the women in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s class differ from other women–college graduates or not. Indeed it seems to me that most of us are still facing the same challenges and trying to solve the same problems–that “double bind”–how to successfully integrate family and career, how to be happy in both our public and private lives.

Rebels in White Gloves ends with 305 of the 430 graduates of the Wellesley class of ’69 getting together in the White House for their 25th reunion. This is one of the few times we catch a firsthand glimpse of Hillary Rodham Clinton: “For three days during that reunion, Hillary hung out happily with her classmates–listening attentively to their symposia, participating in the Sunday morning service performed by pastors in the class, bringing her husband along to the Saturday dinner at the Mayflower Hotel.” No such scene of camaraderie is described in Joyce Milton’s biography The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton . Instead, sour and censuring, she starts out on the very first page painting a very different picture of Hillary: “When a woman with servants spends the weekend cleaning out her closets, it usually is not a good sign.”

I wish I had a dollar for every time Ms. Milton uses the word ambitious . And another dollar for each time she uses the words proud , stubborn , assertive , resilient and insecure ; in fact, in her entire 400-page book, Ms. Milton does not have a single kind word to say about Mrs. Clinton. On the contrary, she enlists the unkind words of others: The Hillary she presents is dowdy , has fat ankles , thick calves , hairy toes . This is how Ms. Milton characterizes Mrs. Clinton’s role as a mother: “She was determined to do everything by the book.” She even judges her on-court performance: The First Lady is an “avid if mediocre tennis player.” Clearly, Hillary Clinton can do nothing right: Every sentence contains some sort of put-down.

Isn’t it too soon for a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton? (Is jumping the gun a sign of Ms. Milton’s own ambition?) With some luck, Mrs. Clinton may move on to a satisfying independent career and a somewhat less scrutinized life; she may even become the third woman in the class of ’69 to be truly happy and successful.