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.

The expectations of their parents had changed as well. In portraying members of the class of '69 as uniquely rebellious, Horn exaggerates the parental opposition they were likely to have encountered. In part she relies on the accounts of the women she interviewed, many of whom may have come from particularly traditional families; but they are not necessarily representative of their generation or class (we don't know whom Horn didn't interview), and their reports need to be balanced with more-objective analysis. Horn simply offers a few anecdotes about women who did not want their daughters attending Wellesley or who worried that too much education would make them unmarriageable; and she claims that these fears were confirmed by "the most estimable psychologists and doctors of the day," along with women's magazines: some warned that educated women were courting "spinsterhood and frigidity" and violating the laws of God and nature.

IT does sound familiar. Throughout much of our nation's history eminent doctors have made many stupid remarks about women. But by the late 1960s few people were listening. What Horn doesn't seem to realize is that when the class of '69 was coming of age, the doctors she cites were already dinosaurs. (Her survey of medical opinion seems rather selective.) She greatly overstates popular resistance to educating women. She should have paid less attention to what the most regressive doctors and psychologists said and more attention to what people did.

By the 1960s middle-class families had been sending their daughters to college for decades. By 1970 close to half (41.9 percent) of all college students were women; close to a quarter (23.5 percent) of all women aged eighteen to twenty-four were in college. As the late historian of education Barbara Solomon observed, it was in the years from 1870 to 1920 that "the denigration of college as an option for women evaporated, and its desirability became established."

This is not to suggest that by 1920 women were expected to pursue careers, just like men: for many years most were expected to become educated mothers. But higher education for women had been normalized long before Hillary and her friends entered Wellesley, and by the time they graduated, careerism was becoming normalized as well. Naturally, some parents enthusiastically supported their daughters' decisions to pursue professions, and some did not. (The ones I've known have all taken pride in their daughters' accomplishments.) There was at least a general expectation that female students would graduate from college: in 1969 at a Seven Sisters school an unintended pregnancy or a decision to drop out and marry had considerably more shock value than a determination to attend law school.

Throughout this book Horn relies on oppositional images of the 1950s and 1960s that are only partly accurate. In portraying the class of '69 as rebellious, freedom-seeking proto-feminists, she paints a monolithic view of their mothers as victims of the feminine mystique, oppressed by femininity, "frustrated and suffocated." Again, she is apparently relying on the unexamined recollections of those women who consented to be interviewed. "When the women of Hillary's class describe their mothers, they return again and again to images of confinement and suffocation," Horn reports. She concludes that women who graduated from Wellesley in 1969 were "the daughters of martyrs."

That is melodrama, not social history. It is no defense of the 1950s to point out that many intelligent, educated women successfully adapted to the decade's restrictions and led at least satisfactory lives, not devoid of pleasure. Some found outlets for their energy and talents in local politics, community work, the arts, or family life. Some held wage-paying jobs. When I remember my mother and her friends in the fifties and sixties, or the mothers of my college classmates, and when I think about the women of their generation with whom I have worked, or those whom I've interviewed in the course of my work, I see a diverse group of women, with the usual range of problems and pleasures. Of course they had their share of sorrows, but it's not as if they never laughed.

Horn might counter that they did not laugh out loud or in public. In her simplistic view, they lived behind closed doors, which their daughters opened as they absorbed the lessons of their culture: feminism taught them to politicize the personal sphere, and popular therapies cautioned against keeping secrets.

Horn sensibly concludes that the conflation of private and public spheres has "had complicated and mixed effects" on the class of '69. Sometimes they "get caught in the therapeutic trap, letting talk substitute for action," she declares -- a bit churlishly, since she has depended so completely on their willingness to talk. (When you interview women for publication and persuade them to confide in you, you waive the right to criticize them for "jeopardizing their own dignity" by "say[ing] too much.") But Horn also attributes considerable progress to the dissolution of traditional boundaries between private and public. Bringing politics into the home and the demands of family life into the workplace, the class of '69 helped to improve personal and professional life for women, she suggests. Its members also formed "enduring alliances" with one another.

These are reasonable but unremarkable observations that could probably have been made about women who graduated from Vassar or the University of Wisconsin in 1969. If Hillary Clinton had not graduated from Wellesley in '69, this book would never have been written, and that is its central irony. This story of feminist progress is driven by a regressive fascination with celebrity. It reflects a rather childlike desire for a charismatic personality who can symbolize and simplify a complex of social changes. If one goal of feminism was to dismantle stereotypes of femininity, for the sake of individualizing and humanizing women, then the erection of female icons is a sign of its failures.

Wendy Kaminer, a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is a public-policy fellow at Radcliffe College.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; The Grads of '69 - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 134-137.