The Grads of '69

Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age With Hillary's Class -- Wellesley '69

HILLARY Rodham Clinton once described herself as a Rorschach test, suggesting that her public images reveal only the public's beliefs and biases, while she remains concealed from us. Her observation is partly true. Clinton is not exactly a cipher: listening to her for the past six years has surely given us some insight into her character and values. But like other charismatic celebrities, she has been both demonized and idealized; as a cultural cynosure, Hillary Clinton may be hard to recognize as a human being.

It is probably quite frustrating to acquire a persona with which you don't identify, although if you're interested in privacy, a false persona may be preferable to one that's true. People erect their public images partly for the sake of taking cover in them. There are benefits as well to being considered symbolic of an age: your life acquires a theme or story line, which helps you to understand it and makes it matter to the rest of us.

Hillary Clinton is commonly considered emblematic of second-wave feminism -- a movement that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. She also stands for the particular cohort of educated white middle- and upper-class women born in the late 1940s, who entered their teens when the feminine mystique was still predominant and embarked on their twenties with feminism ascendant. Clinton seems to share the sense that she belongs to a class of women who experienced and implemented dramatic social change: "I have often thought of myself and my friends as transitional figures, maybe more sure of where we were coming from than where we were going," she remarked in an Esquire profile in 1993. "And friends of mine have described our coming of age as being on the cusp of changes that fundamentally redefined the role of women."

This view of Hillary and her friends is embraced by Miriam Horn in Rebels in White Gloves. Horn interviewed an unspecified number of women from the Wellesley class of 1969, in the apparent hope that their lives would illuminate their times (and appeal to the public's insatiable interest in Hillary Clinton). The life stories of a few Wellesley graduates are interspersed with thumbnail histories and analyses of the sexual revolution, the entry of women into the professions, the decline of the traditional feminine ideal, and the consequent changes in marriage and family life -- the usual issues.

Horn is a competent writer who skillfully balances individual narratives with social commentary, and she understands her primary subject -- contemporary feminism. But this is not an original book. We have heard stories like this before, in innumerable books and women's magazines; we have read multiple accounts of the social changes the stories reflect. This is primarily a book for Hillary groupies. She appears only indirectly (people talk about her), but she hovers over every page. There are several interesting, intelligent, accomplished women portrayed in Rebels in White Gloves, but Horn persistently reminds us that they were "Hillary's classmates" and carefully notes their connections with the First Couple: one woman was "a frequent baby-sitter over the years of Chelsea Clinton."

If Horn is preoccupied with Hillary Clinton (and assumes that we are too), she seems awestruck by the 1960s. Born in the late 1950s, Horn was still a child when "Hillary's classmates" graduated from college. She offers no critical perspective on the familiar, unqualified image of the late 1960s as a turbulent, idealistic, anti-authoritarian time. This image is confirmed by many of the women Horn interviewed, as they recall their own rebellions: at Wellesley they were irreverent and sometimes angry, in defiance of Wellesley tradition and feminine norms; after Wellesley they entered communes, political cells, law schools, or New Age spiritual communities. They assumed traditional domestic roles at least a little defensively.

HORN'S characterization of these transitional years between the feminine mystique and feminism is not exactly inaccurate, but it is simplistic and overdramatized. "Like reluctant seafarers, one foot aboard ship, the other still reaching for familiar ground, the women of the Wellesley class of '69 spent their years at college poised precariously across a chasm between two worlds," Horn declares. When I read that passage to a friend who graduated from Wellesley in 1969, she laughed, unable to recall feeling quite so torn by social change.

In any case, a modicum of Sturm und Drang is probably a developmental hazard for college students as they enter young adulthood, finally liberated from parental supervision. Rebellion is surely a familiar theme for them. It is particularly familiar for college women; since the late 1800s they have aroused the anxieties of traditionalists. Of course, the late 1960s were marked by more than the usual political and sexual unrest. Of course, a lingering cult of gentility at women's colleges was in decline and invited disdain. Of course, many women from the class of '69 may agree with Hillary Clinton that they were "more sure of where we were coming from than where we were going." But that is hardly a remarkable sensation. Every year young men and women graduate from college feeling like pioneers. "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" is an anthem for any age.

Horn recounts some dramatic stories that support her image of the times, but if you look for drama and unexpected metamorphoses in the lives of people in any group, you will find them. My experience at Smith College in the late 1960s leads me to believe that there were probably many members of the Wellesley class of '69 who were not especially rebellious (or politically engaged), including many women who went to graduate school and pursued careers that may not have been available to their mothers. By 1969 careerism was becoming a respectable choice for educated women. It's true that graduate and professional schools were not fully open to women until 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, the federal guarantee of equality in education. But Title IX was enacted precisely because social mores, and the expectations of female students, had changed.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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