In April 1967, a 19-year old Wellesley college student named Hillary Rodham sent a letter to a friend studying 250 miles away. Almost 50 years later, the note is a remarkably lucid glimpse into the author’s soon-to-be public life.
Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three and a half metamorphoses and am beginning to feel as though there is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me. So far, I’ve used alienated academic, involved pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and one-half of withdrawn simplicity.
Hillary Clinton—whose Wednesday concession speech was every bit as emotional as the spirited campaign she fought —is a curator of personal transformations. From reinventing the role of first lady to crushing the approval ratings in the wake of her husband’s affair and rebounding after a devastating electoral defeat, Clinton’s ability to embrace uncertainty primed her for the most powerful political position in the world. Her current incarnation — battered, but not broken, feminist hero — is one we’ll continue to learn from. In her concession speech, Clinton vowed that “our best days are still ahead of us.” For professional women — this is your fight song.
Change is the only constant
It’s no secret that Clinton kept her maiden name at the beginning of her marriage—only to switch to her husband’s in an attempt to appeal to traditional Arkansas voters during his 1982 gubernatorial campaign. But those familiar with Clinton’s career say the switch was emblematic of a deeper, internal change.
At the start of her life, Clinton was a “a pretty idealistic person,” said the journalist Jonathan Allen, who co-wrote the 2014 biography HRC. “She was raised religious, and thought a lot about social justice,” he says. “She went into the field [of politics] to try to make things better, to rectify wrongs. She’s still motivated by the same ideals, but is much more pragmatic about her approach.”
The decision paid off. Bill won the Arkansas governor’s mansion, and the couple was seen as a united front — a reputation that came in handy when he ran for president. On the campaign trail, Clinton—who worked as a lawyer throughout her husband’s gubernatorial career—came under fire for continuing to work while her husband was in office. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life,” she famously responded.
When Bill was elected president in 1992, Clinton set to work transforming the role of first lady — defying the traditionally ceremonial position by acting with a level of authority matched only, perhaps, by her hero Eleanor Roosevelt. Clinton’s efforts to bring universal health care to every American was unsuccessful, but it remains the most ambitious presidential project to have a first lady at its helm, and is credited with laying the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act.
“Clinton’s efforts to reform health care in the ’90s was the first time a first lady has been given a genuinely meaty policy portfolio,” said D orie Clark, a marketing strategy consultant and former spokeswoman for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “It was revolutionary.”
Make your own decisions
Clinton’s resilience became clearer yet in 1998, when Bill’s presidency was nearly destroyed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The first lady kept her cool, and controlled the narrative throughout. Bill’s approval ratings plummeted, but Clinton’s popularity soared.
Five years later, NPR’s Juan Williams asked why she stuck by her husband. “I have to do what is right for me,” she said. “I don’t ask anyone else to live my life.”
As Bill’s presidency drew to a close, Clinton parlayed her newfound admiration into a Senate seat in New York. The victory established her as an electoral force to be reckoned with, and paved the way for her first presidential bid in 2007. She lost that race, but immediately backed fellow Democrat Barack Obama. “She did what was personally difficult, but was the right thing to do for the party,” Allen said. “She gave him an unambiguous endorsement, and she marched along.” S hortly after winning the presidency, Obama nominated Clinton as Secretary of State — making her the first former first lady to serve in a U.S. cabinet position.
Clinton’s pull yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality has been politically advantageous, to be sure. But it’s a Hillary Clinton truism that even her opponents are quick to praise.
“What’s remarkable about Hillary is that she dusts herself off and keeps going,” said Jenny Blake, a career development coach and author of Pivot Pivot: The Only Move That Matters is Your Next One, “There’s nothing that people can throw at her that she can’t handle. It’s why she’s had more successes than failures.”
Find your voice — and stay true to yourself
Decades in the public sphere have made Clinton’s every move ripe for analysis. At this point, the politician’s personality, proficiency, and pantsuits have all been picked apart ad nauseam.
A common sentiment in the rallying cry again Clinton is her struggle to relate to the average Joe. For years, pundits and voters have skewered the candidate for not being exceptionally warm or approachable (you know, like a president). So t his election, the Clinton campaign made a concerted effort to pepper her personality into public appearances. She talked about being a grandmother with a frequency that rivaled her thoughts on foreign policy. She filled her Instagram with candid photos. She debated off-script (remember the shimmy?).
But the most remarkable aspect of Clinton’s transformations may be the consistencies at the core. Like many who have campaigned before her, some of Clinton’s policy positions have shifted over the years. But who she is—a hyper-organized, immensely-prepared public servant who has fought to expand progressive policies for decades—remains the same. A Hillary Clinton presidency would have been a big, fat, feminist step forward. But her poise in the face of unconscionable loss is a career success story for the ages.