Social Class and Hillary

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I like to maintain a certain age anonymity but I must confess that I lived through the same times as Hillary Clinton. We both left our families and went forth into the larger world just about 50 years before this election is taking place. I understand the sexism she had to ignore to do the things she has done. My high school guidance counselor steered me away from a career as an architect by telling me that I was a woman and my math was not strong enough.

Well, she was right about my math skills, and it would have been a struggle, but tutoring probably could have overcome my lack of quantitative strength. Looking back though, I can see that architecture was probably no career for a poor girl because there is a long, arduous apprenticeship before you become an actual architect and are able to earn enough to pay for the education and the time served in the ranks. You also have to be certain that you can build buildings that won’t fall down and it takes a strong ego to back that up. Strong egos are often hard to come by in poor families.

But I also know that, although Hillary’s family was not as poor as mine, Hillary had to ignore a class system that was much more rigid than it is today. In fact, in high school, I wrote a paper about social class in America. In case you haven’t noticed we still have social classes. Today on Morning Joe, Joe and Mika mentioned one of the new names used to designate the upper crust. Some rich folks are now called “coastal elites”, meaning people on the east and west coasts of America who attended elite schools and came from elite families. My family was poorer than Hillary’s family. In fact it was a real dilemma for my family that I wanted to go to any four year college at all, even a state university (we have very good state universities in New York). But Hillary’s ambitions were higher than mine. My family was a lower class blue collar family. Hillary’s father owned his own business and as such was white collar, middle class. But he was still no coastal elite.

Hillary’s decision to go to Wellesley College shows a lot of moxie. She had to know that she was smart enough to apply, be accepted, and succeed. She picked a college where her own social roots would make her somewhat of an outsider. Apparently her own parents did not even want her to go to Wellesley. Was Hillary unaware that her classmates might look down on her as an arriviste of sorts, a fish out of water, or was she totally aware of the social risks involved but felt confident that she would be accepted on her own terms? Hillary continued on to Yale Law School. Is this the kind of confidence that has stayed with Hillary as she tackled positions way above the comfort level of most women from a similar middle class background. She did not take refuge in the intelligentsia where many less socially confident bright women might take refuge.

What is it like for an activist from Wellesley to marry a Southern boy and go live in Little Rock? This is the stuff of novels. It is not always easy for a northern liberated girl to make herself welcome in a Southern city where people have known each other forever. Did Hillary ever feel socially awkward when she first went to live in Little Rock? Was she ever really accepted there as an elite because of her Wellesley degree? Bill Clinton’s mom had no easy life and his stepfather was an abusive alcoholic so he was no elite either. He was very bright, however, and he was able to get a degree from Georgetown University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in England. It is possible that he was born with that charisma which has been his ticket into elite political circles.

Hillary married Bill Clinton in 1975 and he became the Attorney General of Alabama in 1977 so it is possible that being married to a man in public office made life in a southern town easier for this woman born and raised in suburban Chicago. These two seem to have been able to enter the echelons of the upper crust, or become “coastal elites” by way of the colleges they chose to attend, but it may be possible that they have never really been accepted as anything but “nouveau” interlopers.

How much does the fact that Hillary (and Bill) occupy a social position well above their humble origins contribute to Hillary’s unfavorable ratings? Is America snobbish? Are some of us jealous? We don’t seem to always like people who were born wealthy and powerful and yet we don’t seem ready to accept people who made the climb up the social ladder through, well, social climbing, either. Hillary seems to have climbed through academic choices and activism and people are not at all sure that the ways in which the Clintons got their money were in line with either their avowed beliefs, or were accomplished by means that were totally uncorrupt. In fact some people seem to see them as nothing short of “cons” who stole from the poor to give to themselves. Why do so many of us seem to like this version of the story in spite of the fact that there is little proof that it is true?

So Hillary gets the triple whammy of sexism, ageism, and classism along with a more than healthy conspiracy theory mill that spins crimes and near crimes for her to be guilty of day after day. People think she should be further ahead in the polls. With all these headwinds to push against it is a wonder she is as strong as she is. It is pretty sad that someone who has worked so hard to be of use to the nation she loves is possibly only winning because her opponent is a man who should never be the President of America. And that has everything to do with a lack of class, social or otherwise.

I do not know what kind of President Hillary Clinton will be if she is elected. If she doesn’t get a left leaning Congress she will be sidelined and unable to do much more than act as a figurehead of a first female president. If she does get a Congress that leans a bit left what will she set out to accomplish for Americans and will she be successful? But because we came up through the same cultural times in our nation and because we both experienced that reality as women I feel we sort of had to swim in the same ocean, and I admire her because she has been a much stronger swimmer than I. I have faith that she has at least one more strong marathon swim in her.

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