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The complicated history behind Hillary Clinton’s evolving name

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attends an event in Des Moines last month. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Update: On Monday, July 25, during a televised press conference, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump raised a question about Clinton's maiden name, asking why Clinton does not use it anymore. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the question was a rhetorical one, as Trump began to refer to Clinton as "Hillary Rotten Clinton."

The Fix has republished the following post, originally posted Nov. 19, to provide some of the background behind Clinton's changing name.  

Hillary Rodham Clinton might have been a fixture of American public life for the last 23 years.

But as The Washington Post reported just this week, during a routine effort to create consistency in the newspaper's pages, inside Camp Clinton the official word is this: Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016. Not "Hillary Rodham," as she wanted to be called until nearly 10 years after her marriage. Not "Hillary Rodham Clinton," the headband-wearing, apologetic cookie-baking wife of a White House contender. She's Hillary Clinton now.

So, what's going on here?

Clinton is a product of our culture, a woman born in the late 1940s, educated in the 1960s at a top-tier women's college and launched into the work world in the mid 1970s. She's part of a generation of women who gave feminist principles some of their earliest large-scale road tests, who actually contended with the possibility and the reality of "having it all." She's part of a generation that had to navigate daily the sometimes-yawning gap between the expectations of friends, family, employers and their country -- what the culture and their own consciences  demanded.

Clinton is also a woman who has fairly consistently dropped and reassumed a combination of her maiden and married names, as NPR put it. She's done so at times when it seemed politically prudent and maybe even personally meaningful.

To understand what we mean, consider this: This year the New York Times reported that the share of women keeping and using their own names after marriage appears to have reached an all-time high. The paper estimated that roughly 30 percent use their maiden name or add their husband's to their own. That represents a reversal of a trend. Apparently as women were making all kinds of economic and social strides in the 1980s and 1990s, the share who decided to opt for more traditional post-marriage naming conventions still climbed.

A study published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology in 2010 might offer us some useful hints as to why. When researchers asked a group of Dutch test subjects (all of them students) to compare women they met at a hypothetical party, those who changed their names after marrying were described as more "caring, dependent and emotional." And, those who did not were regarded as "ambitious" and "smarter." That's what the test subjects said -- in 2010.

Now, you can dismiss that as a fluke of the student mindset in the Netherlands. You can say that ambition and intelligence are great, in your view. But American culture can't really be accurately described as one fully accepting of women regarded as insufficiently nurturing, warm, kind, humble or willing to follow. How often have you heard or read critiques of Hillary Clinton that seem to center on one of these alleged deficiencies?

[2014: Iowa Activists provide early perceptions of potential Hillary Clinton presidential bid]

And here's the final bit of context that has to be laid out. Lots of women have crafted some variation of their own name game out of the public eye. We're talking about the many, many ladies across the land who are Ms. X in the office or on their bank account but Mrs. Z (or XZ) at the parent teacher-conference. The name thing isn't just political or even practical; it's personal and sometimes emotional. It's certainly complicated.

With that in mind, let's review Hillary Clinton's name history.

In 1974, Hillary Rodham made what she has described as a decision to follow her heart. She left what many people thought was a promising political career in Washington and moved to Arkansas to be with her then-boyfriend, Bill Clinton, and practice law. Rodham joined the faculty at the University of Arkansas School of Law, becoming one of just two women teaching there at the time. In addition to teaching, she set up a still-operational legal aid clinic staffed by students that has today become a mandatory part  of a law school education across the country.

When Professor Rodham married fellow law school professor Bill Clinton in 1975, an Arkansas newspaper reported that Rodham was keeping her name. Clinton has since said neither her own mother nor Bill's mom was happy about that. But Rodham said she wanted to be her own woman. She was 27.

(For what it's worth, apparently brides over the age of 24 are still more likely to keep their own names. The same is true for women with higher salaries.)

Rodham remained at the law school until the 1977 school year, according to school records. And she was Professor Rodham the entire time.

As Bill Clinton's political prospects climbed from a failed bid for the state House of Representatives to a successful one for the Arkansas attorney general's office, Hillary Rodham remained a Rodham. In fact, after her husband was elected the state's governor in 1979, she still went by her maiden name.

But after a series of first-term complications -- the unauthorized departure of Cuban Mariel Boat Lift passengers from an Arkansas facility where they were housed (at least 55 of the more than 6,000 Cuban refugees had been released from Cuban prisons and mental health facilities and put on boats bound for the United States), and an unpopular tax increase -- Bill Clinton lost his reelection bid. And Hillary has said publicly that she learned the hard way that, on the list of voters' gripes, was the fact that she used her maiden name.

When Bill Clinton announced on Feb. 27, 1982, that he would seek to regain the governor's office that year, it was a big day for more than one reason. As he wrote in his autobiography, "My Life," his wife also announced that she would "heretofore" be known as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

This was a partial bow to tradition -- but also, in this sense, it was a political play. It was an attempt to disrupt the idea that she was an excessively ambitious woman or disinterested in the traditional role of the state's first lady. Bill Clinton became governor again.

There's almost no way to say what role Hillary Rodham Clinton's name change played in that outcome. She never left her law firm (note: The Rose Law firm wasn't able to tell us by deadline if and when Rodham became Rodham Clinton in that office). But, at the very least, maybe a few more culturally conservative Arkansas voters viewed her as caring and emotionally connected to her husband.

We do know this: Between 1987 and 1991, Hillary Clinton served as the inaugural chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, under the name Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to the association's records. And in an overlapping period -- 1986 to early 1992 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton joined the board of Wal-Mart, becoming  the first woman to ever do so. Wal-Mart officials told The Fix that a look at the company's 1987 and 1991 annual reports showed Clinton identified as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So on the consistency front, we now have two check marks. She was Hillary Rodham Clinton for the remainder of the time Bill Clinton was governor.

In 1991, Bill Clinton launched his campaign for the White House. This was the election that gave Clinton the moniker "the Comeback Kid." Revelations about a later-confirmed extramarital affair nearly sank the campaign. Then, a joint Bill and Hillary Clinton interview on " 60 Minutes" -- complete with some opaque and outright untrue answers -- joined with hard campaigning and a surprise second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary to save him.

In the process, the woman that the press -- at least -- referred to as Hillary Rodham Clinton made some public missteps that for some of her political foes continue to define her. They say she insulted homemakers, the women so committed to troubled marriages that they found solace in Tammy Wynette's 1968 hit "Stand By Your Man," all while being less than forthcoming about her own. They say she did it all in the name of rapacious ambition. She said she did it out of respect and love.

To say that Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't liked in some sizable circles is an understatement. There were many, many comparisons to Lady Macbeth.

But Bill Clinton won. And once in the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton changed her name game again, according to the White House Historical Association. The Clintons were eager to uphold and maintain White House protocols and traditions. So on official White House materials such as invitations, Hillary Rodham Clinton was identified as "Mrs. Clinton" or "Mrs. Hillary Clinton." But on the first lady's letterhead, in her public remarks and just about any informal setting, she was "Hillary Rodham Clinton." That's certainly how she was referred to in the press, particularly during her failed fight for nationalized health care.

And before you go dismissing that bit about the Clintons' interest White House traditions, or declare the use of "Mrs. Clinton" a purely political ploy to appear more like a "traditional" first lady, consider this: The dual name thing had been done before.

Many 19th Century first ladies were daughters of prominent families. So their maiden names were part of the national parlance, according to the White House Historical Association. (Think Mary Todd Lincoln and Dolly Payne Madison.) They were, however, married 19th Century ladies. So formally, Mary Todd Lincoln was "Mrs. Abraham Lincoln" or "Mrs. Mary Lincoln," and so on.

In the 20th Century, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, Edith, sometimes used the name Edith Bolling Wilson, allowing for a mention of her old and influential Virginia family. But for formal purposes, she, too, was "Mrs. Woodrow Wilson" or "Mrs. Edith Wilson." And when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was fixture in the headlines, Mrs. Betty Ford used just that in Washington, but she was Betty Bloomer Ford in Michigan. (There, the Bloomer name carried weight.) But supporters of the ERA soon started to use all three names, too. It was both a political act and an attempt to avoid using "Mrs. Gerald Ford."

And, finally, in recent years, the woman known almost exclusively as Laura Bush in the White House (wife of President George W. Bush), has identified herself as Laura Welsh Bush in a number of settings since the couple moved out.

Okay. Back to the Hillary Clinton name timeline.

When Bill Clinton's White House years were over, Hillary started talking about a political future. She had lots of advantages. Among them were the Clinton name, the possibility of becoming the first first lady elected to Congress, and the Clinton political and fundraising networks. Of course, some of those same things ranked among her disadvantages, too. This was nepotism, the critics said, with a modern, gendered twist.

[Nov. 2015 The Clinton Donor Network Revealed: Two Clintons. 41 Years. $3 Billion]

Part -- and we do emphasize the word part here -- of the political answer? Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the Senate, not Mrs. Clinton. That's how her name appeared on the 2000 New York state ballot. That's the name the governor submitted on her official certificate of election, according to the Congressional Record.  And that's the name read in her first Senate roll call on Jan. 3, 2001. For official purposes, that was her name in the U.S. Senate.

But when Clinton launched her 2008 bid for the White House, the campaign signs and ballots in early primary states like South Carolina read simply: Hillary Clinton. Sometimes, she was just Hillary. We all know how that turned out. Of course, she also had bigger problems than her name.

But when President Obama named her secretary of state, Clinton took office in January 2009 under the name Hillary Rodham Clinton. That's how things remained, officially, until she resigned Feb. 1, 2013. Behind the scenes, as her now partially public trove of e-mail correspondence makes clear, Clinton is most often referred to as "HRC."

[State Department's account of email request differs from Clinton's]

When Clinton left the State Department, she turned her attention to her mind-bogglingly profitable speech-making enterprise and work at the renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. In the organization's 2014 annual report to the IRS (some of these same reports are, yes, being corrected right now), they bore the name Hillary Rodham Clinton.

What kind of pattern, if any, can be discerned here?

Well, it seems that when Clinton feels that a more traditional naming pattern might be a matter of protocol or politically advantageous -- capable of helping her play down the traits for which she is most often criticized -- she is Hillary Clinton. But when Clinton is operating in the private sector or safely ensconced in a public service position where there was no risk of voter backlash, she's Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For now, as she campaigns for the White House, she's Hillary Clinton. That's all.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the country in which the Dutch live, The Netherlands. An inaccurate reference to Danish students (who live in or hail from Denmark) has been removed.