Women in the World

05.10.12

Hillary Clinton Describes Her Mother’s Rough Childhood

Clinton remembers her mom ahead of Mother’s Day, telling a crowd in New York that her mother, Dorothy Rodham, grew up in neglect.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quieted a room of nearly 2,300 people on Thursday with a story of her mother’s girlhood struggles, while speaking at a New York Women’s Foundation breakfast in Manhattan.

As a girl, Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, grew up in a home of neglect and abuse, Clinton said. At 8 years old, Rodham escorted her younger sister to California by train, alone, to reside with their paternal grandparents. She worked as a nanny for money, and excelled at high school, but college was financially impossible.

“When I was old enough to understand, I asked how was it that you didn’t become embittered,” Clinton said. She said, “At critical points in my life, somebody showed me kindness and gave me help.”

Clinton recalled key people her mother had remembered over the years—people who had helped in small but meaningful ways. There was a teacher who bought two cartons of milk each day, one for herself and one for Rodham, after noticing Rodham was unable to buy her own. Then there was a woman who handed over a shirt when Rodham desperately needed clothes.

With Mother’s Day approaching, Clinton said, she had been thinking of her mother, who died in November at 92, but who helped chisel her daughter’s world view.

“We are living in a world of virtual reality, but nothing substitutes for personal relationships. I learned this lesson from my mother,” she said.

The New York Women’s Foundation funds organizations that empower women to find jobs and to house and educate their families. Benefactors of the organization’s work spoke at the event as well, telling their own stories of triumph. One woman had given birth in prison with her wrists restrained, and benefited from child care and housing provided by aid group Our Children. A teen mom, meanwhile, landed a Fortune 500 company internship that became a job through the mentoring program Year Up.

Twenty-three percent of women and children in New York live in poverty, the New York Women’s Foundation said, adding that the group is helping women access close to $350 million in support and tax credits to narrow the poverty gap.

Other honorees, who, along with Clinton, received an award in the form of a feathered walking stick, were a domestic-worker advocate, Ai-jen Poo, and a community organizer, Merble Reagon.

Clinton was introduced by Abigail Disney, the documentary film director and activist, who called Clinton “a genie that has been let out of her bottle, and she’ll never be put back in again.”

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn addressed the crowd as well, speaking about President Obama’s gay-marriage announcement the day before. She said that a decade ago, when she had advocated for gay and lesbians while directing the New York City Anti-Violence Project, “It was unimaginable then that a president would support marriage equality.” Quinn expressed excitement for her own wedding Saturday, to longtime partner Kim Catullo.

One thing not discussed at the event: Clinton’s makeup-less photo that wallpapered the Internet this week. Instead, Clinton complimented Christine Quinn’s outfit. “Chris Quinn looks so fashionable and sharp,” Clinton said. “Not that I pay any attention to that.”