Q&A With Miriam Horn
Miriam Horn, a graduate of Williams College and Harvard University, is a writer for U.S.News & World Report. She lives in New York City.
Here is a transcript of today's session:
Bob Levey: You chose to write about women at Wellesley, which is an elite, small, New England school. What do you think you would have found if you'd written about the women in the class of 1969 at, say, Michigan State?
Miriam Horn: Like the other seven sisters, Wellesley was in a position in the mid-60s to draw the most accomplished young women from across America, especially since schools like Yale and Princeton still did not accept women at that time. So there is probably a somewhat higher proportion of the professionals than you might have found coming out of a state school. Also, proximity to Cambridge, one of the centers of the student movement, meant that even though Wellesley preserved a lot of its traditions and domestic expectations of women, they were also given a fairly heavy dose of the student movement, as well as exposure to the feminism then reemergent. That means, perhaps, a wilder array of life adventures since graduation.
Annandale, VA: Of the Class of '69 graduates you wrote about, what percentage would you classify as fiscal conservatives i.e. not liberal?
Miriam Horn: When they entered college in 1965, the women of Hillary's class were, like their parents, mostly Republican conservatives. By the time they graduated, most were liberal Democrats, and most of them have remained both. Very few entered business school or professions in the corporate world; most are in teaching, medicine or law, and even the lawyers are often involved in public advocacy. Only a few subscribe to conservative politics today, and I would guess that applies to fiscal policies as well.
Good afternoon, Ms. Horn.
Miriam Horn: I think the answer is closer to the second: many of these women, for instance, gained their education in political activism while at Wellesley, learning from the model of their African American classmates. Though there were only five, all of those women had grown up in the civil rights movement, and brought to their classmates both a sharper sense of the need to battle inequality and some idea of techniques for waging that fight. The counterculture, too, had an enormous impact on these women. Many experimented with drugs, went off on spiritual sojourns, and--perhaps most importantly for women who grew up in "traditional" families, experimented with such radical domestic arrangements as communal living and sexual freedom.
Bob Levey: You write that a major "worry for many of the women of 1969" is that they are "insufficiently bold in the world." Really? Hillary Clinton isn't bold in the world? A U.S. Attorney in Oregon isn't? Entrepreneur Janet McDonald Hill isn't?
Miriam Horn: The degree to which these women were affected by the broader movements of the sixties, as mentioned above, explains why they might still count themselves insufficiently bold in the world. "The establishment", as some of you may recall, was considered by many in the sixties to be so fundamentally corrupt as to ruin anyone who entered. At Yale law school, Hillary Clinton and her Wellesley classmate Kris Olson (now U.S. Attorney in Oregon), spent many a late night debating whether earning a law degree, or contemplating a life in government, would guarantee that they would be co-opted by power. In fact, compared to the lives of many of her classmates, Hillary Clinton has had fairly conventional ambitions and family life. Her classmate Matilda Williams, for instance, became a Buddhist nun in Thailand, begging for alms and sleeping on a grass mat in the jungle. Dr. Lonnie Higgins raised her family aboard a ship, while sailing in Micronesia teaching local health workers how to care for pregnant women and new babies. Alison Campbell gave away her family fortune and has spent her life as a middleclass housewife, caring for her kids and her husband's parents. All bolder, in their way.
What do you see as the differences between the challenges faced by the Wellesley women of '69 and the current generation of Wellesley women?
Miriam Horn: This is a question I myself wonder about a lot, and I sometimes think I should do my next book on your generation. I guess I'd be interested to hear what you think the differences are; from what I learned from the daughters of the Wellesley class of '69, most feel both easier in their relationships with men (not so anxious to find a husband), and more certain of their diverse possibilities in the world. Overwhelmed by choice, perhaps, but that seems a better burden than too few choices. What do you think?
Half an hour remaining with today's guest, Miriam Horn, author of "Rebels in White Gloves," a look at the Wellesley College class of 1969.
Bob Levey: You write that "messages about sex were, in those years, profoundly mixed." That's a very important point, it seems to me. The class of 1969 wasn't wildly jumping into bed with everyone who asked. There was plenty of ambivalence about the subject. Do the members of Wellesley '69 still feel that ambivalence in any way?
Miriam Horn: As girls, the women of '69 were taught that a girl who had sex outside of marriage was ruined; at Wellesley, during their mandatory "marriage lecture" (designed to teach them such skills as talking to their husband's boss and when to feed the baby), one young woman was scolded when she asked about orgasm, she was told "that's a medical question" and was sent to the infirmary. Dorothy Devine, one of the main characters in my book, was threatened by her father that he would disown her when he learned she was sleeping with her boyfriend; he forced her to marry the young man, a marriage that ended just a few years later. Lorna Rinear, a wealthy young girl from Manhattan, rebelled against her strict upbringing and ended up pregnant by the Wellesley stableman. The first time, her daddy took her to Puerto Rico for an abortion (this was before Roe vs Wade), the second time she also married the guy, dropping out of Wellesley to do so. Most of the young women, in fact, had by graduation tried out the sexual revolution. Some did even sleep with everyone who asked, and many look back on that with satisfaction that they were afforded the same freedom to experiment as men. But some, like Dorothy Devine, found new pressures. In the collective she and her husband lived in, the expectation was that she would tolerate his sexual adventures with other women, and that she would be derided if she herself insisted on remaining faithful to him. Even thirty years later, a number are still wrestling with issues like marital betrayal, and still trying to write a new set of rules for relations between the sexes.
Wheaton, MD: From the blurbs I've read about your book, it sounds like Hillary Rodham was quite the radical. Fight the machine, and all that. Now, here she is, standing by her man, scoundrel that he is, and contemplating a carpetbagging run at the Senate. Really, Ms. Horn, doesn't this all strike you as life imitating art?
Miriam Horn: As some of my earlier answers might have by now suggested, I don't in fact see Hillary Rodham as one of the more radical members of the class. At Wellesley, where she was college government president, she had a reputation for being a conciliator; some of her classmates thought she was too ready to divert their dissenting impulses into channels acceptable to the college administration, to avoid "embarrassing" the school. And even now, her contemplation of a run for U.S. Senate does not seem a particularly radical move, when compared with the more wholesale reinventions of work and family life attempted by many of her classmates.
Washington, DC: As a friend and colleague of Ms. Clinton, have you ever jumped up-and-down on the bed in the Lincoln bedroom—ala Markie Post? Any chance that you will be buried at Arlington?
Miriam Horn: Alas, no, I've never had the chance to bounce on the Lincoln bed. Fact is, I'm neither a friend nor a colleague of Mrs. Clinton's: I did not go to Wellesley, and she did not agree to be interviewed for this book. (She was one of only three women in the class who declined.) A headstone at Arlington, therefore, also seems out of the question...
WDC: It seems to me that most college students today, men & women both, go through the "college phase" of experimentation with new moral-physical-ethical- religous territory, but seem to head straight back to the "norm" a few years out of school. Some of the women you cited above seems to truly be living their lives on a different path. Do you think that the women of '69 were more likely to continue the "experimentation" phase throughout their lives than todays grads? Why?
Miriam Horn: This is a terrific question--it goes exactly to the heart of my book, both to the greatest discovery I made in the course of writing it and the reason I found it compelling enough to give five years of my life to the research and writing. The answer is a resounding yes: over and over again, these women have been willing to use their lives as laboratories, testing out the new ideas that have continued to emerge over the past 30 years about the nature and possible destinies for women. Many have also contributed to the making of those new ideas: Martha McClintock, for instance, is a biopsychologist at the University of Chicago who continues to upend certainties about the biological bases of gender differences. (She discovered, for instance, that contrary to the conventional belief that males of most species were the sexual aggressors, in rats, it is the female who initiates sex...) The last chapter of the book finds many of them, in their early fifties, launching out on whole new adventures: Lonnie Higgins has a new baby; stay-at-home mom Kathy Ruckman has begun law school; Lorna Rinear--the one who dropped out to marry the Wellesley stableman--ended up raising their two sons on her own (working in factories to do so). When the eldest graduated from college, he paid for his mom to return to Wellesley and get her degree, at age 50.
Bob Levey: Kathy Smith Ruckman is the one fulltime Mom you describe in the book. She says she's comfortable with her decision. But how would her classmates view it? As if she sold out? Copped out? As if it were her business?
Miriam Horn: There are actually a few full-time moms in the book, though they were certainly a small minority in the class. And each has had a slightly different experience. Kathy certainly felt scorned by her professional classmates, and also voiced her view that she felt children were shortchanged when both parents chose to go out of the home to work. Her classmates, however, expressed no such scorn; though they conceded that feminism circa 1970 overreacted to the dominance of the "feminine mystique" (which said that a woman's only sure path to happiness was marriage and children), by the nineties they were voicing gratitude for those parents who still were active in the schools and churches and neighborhoods; they understood how much their own children benefited from the proximity of stay at home moms.
Bob Levey: There isn't much in your book about Wellesley as an academic or intellectual experience. Is that because, for the class of 1969, it wasn't either one?
Miriam Horn: Though I was struck in my research about Wellesley at the persistence of some traditions reminiscent of a finishing school, I also hoped to make clear that the school has always, since its founding, taken seriously the lives of the young women in its charge. Its faculty has always been superb (and heavily female) and its academic demands have always been high. It has also produced a long line of accomplished women, from before the turn of the last century: journalists, scientists, ministers, business leaders, and such recent well-known graduates as Madeline Albright, Cokie Roberts and Diane Sawyer. But the cultural experience was so powerful for these women, it often overwhelmed the intellectual one, at least in memory.
Bob Levey: If you attended the 30th reunion of Wellesley '69 later this month, what (and whom) do you think you'd find?
Miriam Horn: This Thursday, June 3, Hillary Clinton has invited all of her classmates to a party at the White House. Most of the 420 who graduated will be there. Among them will be Nancy Young, who at various times in her life has been an actress, a certified public accountant, chief financial officer for the Rajneesh cult, a pastoral counselor to homeless veterans, and a cancer survivor. Nancy Wanderer will also be there: she was the first bride and mother in the class, and 20 years later left her husband for a woman. The four women in the Clinton administration will be there, including Jan Piercy, U.S. executive director at the World Bank. Sarah B. Larabee may come in from one of her frequent pilgrimages to Nepal. In short, a diverse group indeed.
That's all we have time for today. Thanks to Miriam Horn. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, June 8, when our guest will be Phil Bennett, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post for foreign news. Phil is just back from a reporting trip to the Balkans. He'll take your questions on all aspects of that conflict. Also, be sure to join us each Friday for our anything-goes show, "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.