“One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal.”
— Hillary Clinton, interview on Humans of New York, Sept. 8, 2015
Hillary Clinton’s recounting of her experience taking the law school admissions test in 1969, posted on the Facebook page of the wildly popular Humans of New York, has been shared or liked about a million times. Clinton wrote that there were very few other women taking the exam and that some men objected to their presence, saying the women would take their spots in law school. Clinton said she kept cool and didn’t respond. “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” Clinton said. “But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions.”
Judging from the supportive comments, many older women also said they had experienced similar intimidation from men during graduate-school admissions tests. But some readers have cried foul about her specific anecdote of a man saying, “‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’”
Here’s the problem: At the time Clinton took the test, graduate-school deferments had been eliminated for law school. Let’s investigate.
The evocative anecdote does not appear in Clinton’s 2003 memoir, “Living History.” Clinton simply writes, “I took the law school admissions test and applied to several schools.” She was accepted to Harvard and Yale, and choose Yale, entering in the fall of 1969. Clinton graduated four years later, as she spent a year working at the Yale Child Study Center.
Clinton has referenced this incident in at least two previous interviews in 2014 and 2016.
She told Glamour in 2014: “Some of the men were just rattling us, [saying] ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’ ‘You’re taking a place of a man who could maybe get drafted and die in Vietnam.’ It was just really personal! Personal and pointed.” And to New York magazine this year, she recounted: “I remember one young man said, ‘If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.’ ”
Update: A reader directed us to a 1996 interview with the New Yorker in which Clinton told this story without a Vietnam reference. “We had to go in to Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harass us,” Clinton said. “They started to say, ‘What do you think you’re doing? If you get into law school, you’re going to take my position. You’ve got no right to do this. Why don’t you go home and get married?’ ”
So this anecdote appears to have first emerged 45 years after it supposedly happened.
Clinton graduated from Wellesley College in 1969, and she says she took her law school exam in senior year. So that would either be the fall of 1968 or the spring of 1969.
Here’s what was happening to the Vietnam draft at the time.
On June 30, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a new Selective Service act that included elimination of mass graduate school deferments, but he immediately delayed putting the changes into effect for a year by issuing an executive order.
The law was intended to deal with the perceived unfairness of wealthier, more educated men avoiding the draft through the “stacking” of educational deferments, such as going to college and then graduate school programs. On Feb. 16, 1968, the Johnson administration announced it would abolish graduate-school deferments for all but medical, dental and divinity students in the coming school year. University officials reacted in horror, and the president of Harvard University said the only people entering graduate school in September 1968 would be “the lame, the halt, the blind and the female,” according to an account in Congressional Quarterly.
So this announcement would have been at least six months before Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, took her law school exam. Case closed? Actually, it’s more complicated than that.
Contemporaneous newspaper accounts indicate that the impact of the new draft rules was much less than anticipated. Columbia University reported that only a handful of graduate students had to leave school or not enroll because of the draft. A survey of universities, published by the American Eagle at American University, also reported only a dip in graduate admissions.
Indeed, Rodham’s Yale Law School class was mostly men, with only 27 women among the 235 graduating students.
Moreover, the draft was in flux in 1968, with then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon promising a new approach, such as a lottery system, if he was elected. In September 1969, when Rodham was starting law school, Nixon, facing turmoil on college campuses, suspended draft calls for November and December of that year and said the October call would be spread out over three months. On Oct. 1, he announced that anyone in graduate school could complete the full year.
Joshua E. Kastenberg, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and former military judge who has closely studied draft policies, said there was still a lot of flexibility in the system, given the independence of local draft boards, so in effect “a de facto deferment” remained in place, especially if someone was white and upper middle class. Hardship deferments were still given out, especially for graduate students.
“The Army’s demographics based off conscription were still vastly weighted to non-college students and there remained a de facto deferment in place for graduate students,” he said. ‘Graduate school still acted as a shield. It was very clear that after 1968 graduate students still had significantly less chance of being called up.”
At the time, many young men worked the system to avoid being sent to war. Here are three prominent examples.
• Bill Clinton was deemed eligible for induction when he neared graduation from Georgetown University in 1968. But then he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His induction notice arrived in April 1969, too late for him to join. He then received a deferment because he committed to join the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas — and then gave up that deferment when he got a high lottery number. He then entered Yale Law School, where he met his future wife.
• Rudy Giuliani, the future New York City mayor, graduated from Manhattan College in 1965 and from NYU Law School in 1968. He then was eligible for the draft, but he was hired as a law clerk by a U.S. federal judge. He applied for an occupational deferment, which his draft board rejected. But he appealed the rejection, aided by a letter from the judge, and was shielded from the draft until he received a high lottery number.
• William Weld, now the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee, appealed a draft board ruling ending his law school deferment in the winter of 1968-69, when he was in the second year of three years at Harvard Law School, according to a 1995 Boston Globe report. He lost his appeal in April 1969, but his induction was delayed until May. Ultimately, he was rejected for service because of a bad back.
Kastenberg said that given the uncertainty at the time, the statement reported by Clinton is plausible. “I could easily see male students were under the impression that women would deny opportunities” to avoid military service, he said. “It is very clear that graduate students after 1968 had significantly less chance of being called up” than high school graduates who did not go to college and were in the work force.
The Pinocchio Test
We understand why readers might be skeptical of Clinton’s tale, given the change in policies that were announced at least six months before she took her law school admission exam. But the situation was sufficiently in flux, with outcomes so uncertain, that her anecdote may well be true. Besides, when men are jerks, they don’t necessarily speak with accuracy, either. The Vietnam war was on everyone’s minds then.
It certainly would have helped if Clinton had recalled this story many years earlier, especially since her 1996 version does not include a Vietnam reference. But at this point, there is really no way to get to bottom of this unless a witness comes forward. So we will have to label this Verdict Pending. We will update this if we obtain any additional information.
Update, Sept. 20: After this fact check appeared, we heard from dozens of readers about their own personal experiences from that era. Many men wrote about their anxiety and confusion over the precise rules in that pre-Internet age, as well as uneven application of the rules by local draft boards. Women wrote of being harassed by men while they took the exam or attended law school, including three who said the Vietnam draft was specifically mentioned.
Tara Bartee, of Tallahassee, Fla., said she took the test in late 1969 or early 1970 and a male applicant said something very similar to Clinton’s recollection.
“I had hoped to go to Denver University Law School in the fall of 1970,” she wrote. “As you may have heard from others, women were a bare minority in law school at the time and really unwelcome. The angst about the draft was everywhere. His remark wasn’t as clear as if I specifically got in I would take HIS place. The implication was women getting into law school meant some men who might otherwise have continued on deferment would no longer have that protection from being drafted. Simple math, women in the heretofore all male bastion meant some men would left out.”
Margaret H. Murphy, who was in law school from 1970-1973 and eventually became a U.S. bankruptcy judge, encountered such a statement in her first year in law school.
“I took the LSAT late in 1969,” she wrote. “I actually had a member of my class say to me, in the library my first semester in law school: ‘Don’t you know you’re taking the spot of a guy who might have to go to Vietnam but otherwise would need to support his family?’” So if it happened to me, it could very well have been said to Hillary; the tenor of the times in law school then was not yet feminist — students and some faculty were still getting used to the idea. While it was intentional on the part of law firms to hire women then, they were also still getting used to the idea.”
Judith F. Mazo, who has contributed to Clinton, also reported such comments.
“I graduated from Wellesley in 1966 and Yale Law School in 1969, completing my education just a little ahead of Hillary Rodham (as she was in college and law school),” she wrote. “I was definitely an object of resentment by some of the boys applying to law school at the same time, who did remark that I was taking a slot that could save one of them from going to Vietnam. My (female) roommate was accused of the same thing.”
In light of these recollections, we have to say that Clinton’s story is now highly plausible. One can wonder why she apparently did not mention it for decades. But the preponderance of evidence weighs in her favor, and we are switching this to a Geppetto Checkmark.
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