CLINTON, Hillary Rodham

1947–

Biography

In 2000, while serving as First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton won election to the U.S. Senate from New York. On Capitol Hill she worked to rebuild and secure New York City in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and pushed for measures to aid the troops fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After serving as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President Barack Obama, she became the first woman in American history to be nominated for President on a major party ticket. After breaking barriers at every turn during her political career Clinton reflected on her legacy in March 2020. “Well, I know I was a good public servant,” she said. “I hope that I’ve made it a little bit easier for more women to enter the public sphere.”1

Hillary Rodham Clinton was born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois, the oldest of three children, to Hugh Ellsworth Rodham and Dorothy Howell Rodham. Clinton grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she became a campus leader and was chosen by her classmates as the first student commencement speaker.2 After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, Clinton completed a law degree at Yale Law School in 1973. Inspired by the work of Marian Wright Edelman, a Yale alumna and children’s rights activist who founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), Clinton worked for the CDF after graduation. In 1974 she joined the staff of the House Judiciary Committee special counsel leading the impeachment inquiry into President Richard M. Nixon sparked by the Watergate Scandal. After Nixon resigned and the House closed its investigation, Rodham accepted a teaching position at the University of Arkansas School of Law and in 1975 married William J. (Bill) Clinton, whom she had met at Yale. They have a daughter, Chelsea.3

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Clinton to the board of Legal Services Corporation—an organization that dispersed federal money to legal aid bureaus nationally. She founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and in 1978 was named to the Children’s Defense Fund board, which she later chaired from 1986 to 1989. In 1978 her husband Bill won election as governor of Arkansas, and she took on responsibilities as the state’s first lady during their combined 10 years in the governor’s mansion.4 In 1992 she campaigned widely for her husband during his run for the White House; Bill Clinton was elected President that November. For eight years, Clinton served as an active First Lady, working on health care reform, children’s issues, and women’s rights. President Clinton named her head of his task force on health care policy, but Congress never embraced her plan to overhaul the health industry. The reforms were abandoned in September 1994.5

In 1999, when New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced his retirement, Clinton joined the race to succeed him while maintaining the role of First Lady. In July 1999, she set up an exploratory committee and pledged to “spend some time—a lot of time—in New York listening to people.”6 Despite never having lived in New York, Clinton established residency, gained strong party support, and quickly became the frontrunner in the Democratic primary largely due to her efforts campaigning in upstate New York. In her official campaign launch on February 7, 2000, Clinton took the stage at the State University of New York with the President standing silently behind her. Addressing certain criticisms head-on she said, “Now I know, some people are asking why I’m doing this, here and now. And that’s a fair question. Here’s my answer, and why I hope you’ll put me to work for you: I may be new to the neighborhood, but I’m not new to your concerns.”7

Clinton swept the Democratic primary, winning 82 percent of the vote against Mark McMahon, an orthopedic surgeon who had only entered the race to prevent Clinton from running unopposed.8 In the build up to the general election against Republican Representative Enrico A. (Rick) Lazio, Clinton pledged to help revitalize the economy upstate and continue her commitment to education and health care reform. She backed a “patients’ bill of rights” and expanded Medicare coverage for prescription drugs. Clinton hammered Lazio on the subject of health care in the campaign’s final stretch, criticizing the Congressman for missing a vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have required HMO plans to cover Medicare patients for at least three years, instead of one. On November 7, 2000, she prevailed with 56 percent of the vote.9 Clinton’s election made her the first woman to represent New York in the United States Senate; she was also the first First Lady to win election to federal office.

In the Senate, Clinton received three committee assignments in her first term: Budget; Environment and Public Works; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), she stepped down from the Budget Committee when she became the first New Yorker in Senate history to serve on the Armed Services Committee. Additionally, in the 109th Congress (2005–2007), she was assigned to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.10

Much of Clinton’s early work in the Senate focused on promoting economic development in upstate New York—including the expansion of high-speed Internet access and the creation of tax incentives for environmentally friendly building projects. She also promoted programs to renovate and modernize schools. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, she worked to help the region recover. Because of the attacks, New York lost one-third of all its office space in Lower Manhattan; key rail and subway lines closed, displacing more than a half million commuters; and tens of thousands of jobs were lost. Clinton worked with her colleagues to ensure New York received federal funds to begin rebuilding. She fought to include $50 million for New York area nonprofits and $570 million in infrastructure security in 2004. Eventually, more than $21.4 billion was appropriated to rebuild and secure the city and affected areas. Clinton also won an extension of unemployment insurance to help displaced workers.11

In October 2002, following President George W. Bush’s warning that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Clinton joined 28 other Democratic Senators and nearly all Republicans in authorizing use of military force in Iraq. Despite criticism from peace advocates and other Democrats, Clinton defended her decision and later voted for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the war. “The fact is we’re in Iraq and we’re in Afghanistan, and we have no choice but to be successful,” she explained in December 2003. As the war dragged on, however, Clinton joined a chorus of Democrats criticizing the Bush administration’s strategy. In August 2006, she called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Henry Rumsfeld.12

During her time in the Senate, Clinton was either in the minority party or part of a razor-thin majority. While a few of her standalone bills became law, Clinton focused on policy work in committee and on establishing bipartisan relationships.13 Virginia Senator John William Warner, the Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee, praised Clinton’s efforts. “She’s very industrious,” he said. “She does her homework very carefully. She’s very respectful of how the committee does its business.” Clinton leveraged her understanding of the committee process to pursue more protective body armor for troops in the Middle East and to advocate for an end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay servicemembers.14

In fall 2006, Clinton was re-elected to a second term in the Senate, winning 64 percent of the vote against Republican candidate John Spencer. In 2007 she declared her candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. In a historic primary season, Clinton emerged as an early frontrunner, but criticisms of her vote for the Iraq War weighed on her campaign and she eventually lost the nomination to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Following his election as President, Obama nominated Clinton as Secretary of State. In late January 2009, after the Senate confirmed her nomination, Clinton resigned from the Senate to begin her duties as Secretary of State.15

Clinton served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013. On April 12, 2015, she announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Clinton won the Democratic primary and, when she accepted the nomination on July 28, 2016, became the first woman to head the presidential ticket of a major party. Though she ultimately won nearly three million more votes in the popular vote, Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, who captured the Electoral College.16

Footnotes

1Audie Cornish, “‘Hillary’ Documentary Sets Clinton’s Career and Marriage Against Culture War Backdrop,” 4 March 2020, National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/811752934.

2“Clinton, Hillary Rodham,” Current Biography, 2002 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 2002): 93–94.

3Current Biography, 2002: 93–94; Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 671.

4Bill Clinton served three nonconsecutive terms as governor of Arkansas: 1979 to 1981, and then again from 1983 until his resignation in 1992 to run for President.

5Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2007): 1127–1128.

6Adam Nagourney, “The Senate Campaign—the First Lady,” 18 September 2000, New York Times: A1; “Hillary Clinton Confirms a First Senate Step,” 5 June 1999, New York Times: 1.

7Adam Nagourney, “It’s Official: First Lady is Now Candidate Clinton,” 7 February 2000, New York Times: A1.

8Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 1128–1129; “Mrs. Clinton’s Primary Rival Imagines a September Surprise,” 8 September 2000, New York Times: B5; Federal Election Commission, “2000 U.S. Senate Results,” accessed 26 February 2020, https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/fe2000/2000senate.htm#NY.

9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; John F. Harris, “Clinton Shifts Focus to GOP Opponent,” 21 June 2000, Washington Post: A6; Noreen O’Donnell, “Clinton Gains Favor with Attacks on Lazio,” 19 June 2000, Journal News (Westchester, NY): 1A; Politics in America, 2002: 671; Randal C. Archibold and Dean E. Murphy, “Flurry of Ads and Speeches In Last Week of Senate Race,” 31 October 2000, New York Times: B5.

10Politics in America, 2002: 671.

11Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 1130; Congressional Record, Senate, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (3 December 2001): 23712–23713; Frank Bruni, “Show Us the Money,” 16 December 2001, New York Times Magazine: 60. See also John F. Harris, “Hillary’s Big Adventure,” 27 January 2002, Washington Post Magazine: W8.

12Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 1130–1131; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 681–682.

13Clinton’s successful bills include: Kate Mullany National Historic Site Act, PL 108-438, 118 Stat. 2625 (2004); A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2951 New York Highway 43 in Averill Park, New York, as the “Major George Quamo Post Office Building,” PL 109-311, 120 Stat. 1729 (2006); A bill to designate a portion of United States Route 20A, located in Orchard Park, New York, as the “Timothy J. Russert Highway,” PL 110-282, 122 Stat. 2618 (2008).

14Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 1131.

15“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Almanac of American Politics, 2008: 1131–1132; Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim, “Kennedy Ends Bid for Senate, Informing Paterson of Choice,” 22 January 2009, New York Times: A1.

16“Presidential Election Results: Donald J. Trump Wins,” last updated 9 August 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/elections/2016/results/president; Sarah Begley, “Hillary Clinton Leads by 2.8 Million in Final Popular Vote Count,” 20 December 2016, Time, https://time.com/4608555/hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

William J. Clinton Presidential Library

Little Rock, AR
Papers: Senatorial papers.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

___. Hard Choices. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

___. It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

___. Living History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

"Hillary Rodham Clinton," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Senator, 2001-2009. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2012.

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