"Rebels in White Gloves: The tie-dyed debutantes of Hillary's graduating class

The times were turbulent, and these decorous young ladies weren't about to be left behind.

Published July 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When the members of the Wellesley class of 1969 were sophomores, a movie came out that distilled their life's central crisis into two sentences. The movie was "The Graduate," and the sentences came at the end, when Elaine Robinson made a split-second decision to flee the clubbable bore she had just married and run off with Benjamin, her mother's ex-lover. "It's too late!" Mrs. Robinson shrieked at her. "Not for me!" Elaine shrieked back -- and started sprinting.

The college women of the '60s were raised to be nice girls who would get an education, marry well, then raise nice girls and boys of their own. But when the freshman class hit Wellesley in 1965, the first thing they set about raising was their consciousness; they didn't want to be trapped by the conventions that had stifled their mothers. Sylvia Plath's novel "The Bell Jar" and Betty Friedan's polemic "The Feminine Mystique" had been around for two years, shattering the myth of suburban contentment; the Pill had been around for five years, removing the most pressing reason for virginity; and most important, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement and the hippie fashion blitz were all in full flare. Wellesley parents and officials tried to dig the moat deep around their daughters and charges, but the fire on the streets got through.

In "Rebels in White Gloves," Miriam Horn presents the stories of these trailblazing women, conveying the breathlessness and the fear they felt as they imagined their potential in those electrifying times. Kris Olson, who today is Oregon's U.S. attorney, stormed corporations, demanding reforms. "We'd go in our little Villager dresses and heels, meet sweetly with the board of trustees, and then confront them on institutional racism," she recalls. Fellow '69er Chris Osbourne, now an advertising executive, says she made a different kind of statement: She was "the archetypal '60s girl. I had hair down to my ass, and tie-dye this and macrami that."

At Wellesley, even archetypal '60s girls had to obey strict parietal rules, just like Elaine did; they wore white gloves to pour tea, and attended lectures on how to impress their future husbands' bosses. They even kept up the tradition of rolling hoops down a hill to predict who would marry first. As a result, the class of '69 had an odd knack of bringing culture to the counterculture. When Dorothy Devine, who married in her senior year, moved into a lefty collective with her husband, she hung Marimekko curtains; and before the blissfully beautiful debutante Alison "Snowy" Campbell headed for the Haight after graduation, she worked in the diamond-brooch department at Tiffany's, next to a young German princess.

Since the end of the tie-dye era, many alumnae have led unconventional lives without quite abandoning conventional values. Nancy Wanderer, a popular blue-eyed Pennsylvania girl who married in her junior year (there were 500 guests at the wedding), left her husband a few years ago, went to law school and moved in with the woman who had become her lover. In her work, helping battered women and disadvantaged children, she is still guided by Wellesley's genteel motto, "Non ministrari sed ministrare" ("Not to be ministered unto, but to minister to"). Meanwhile, her most famous classmate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has learned that currying favor with her husband's boss -- the American public -- is a skill she can't ignore. When Bill Clinton became president, Hillary Clinton soon found out that voters were more impressed by a first lady with white cotton gloves than by a first lady with a law degree.

Horn shows that Clinton has been a beacon to her class; she is their bellwether, the one they look to in order to assess themselves. While her classmates have had to reconcile their idealism with their lives in private, Hillary's struggle to trim her ambitions and curb her tongue to fit the public's retrogressive taste has taken place with the whole world watching. Her classmates encourage her in the alumnae notes. ("Every increment of respect you garner will increase the leverage the rest of American women have in their marriages, families, and the larger world.")

Thirty years ago, they chose her as the first student graduation speaker that Wellesley had ever allowed. A pompous Republican senator spoke before her, condemning the student protest movement, praising Nixon and begging the girls to behave. His speech so infuriated the future first lady that she departed from her notes, denounced his advice and defiantly declared, "We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understand and attempting to create within that uncertainty. The only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives." Today's young women still have no better tool to break the path with, but thanks to women like these, they do have better guides.

Just as "The Feminine Mystique" grew out of a reunion of Smith College alumnae that Betty Friedan attended, Horn's history began as an article she wrote on the 25th reunion of Wellesley '69 for U.S. News and World Report. The women she has interviewed have not always had trouble-free lives, but at least they have had the satisfaction of knowing that they chose the paths they took and that they were free to change them; their parents and their peers might have disapproved but could not stop them.

College kids who saw "The Graduate" probably thought that after Ben and Elaine fled the church, they would lead more free-spirited lives than their parents had. But Mike Nichols, the film's director, said later that he thought Ben and Elaine would end up just like their parents. He may have been right, but there is still a difference: The Mrs. Robinsons of the '90s have a better chance at happiness than the Mrs. Robinsons of the '60s, because they are no longer convinced that it is ever too late -- for their daughters, or for themselves.

By Liesl Schillinger

Liesl Schillinger writes on culture and sexual politics for the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications. She is on the staff of the New Yorker.

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