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Why It Should Matter That Hillary Clinton Was A Breadwinner

She may be the first U.S. president to truly understand working mothers.

Of course, Hillary Clinton is not like you and me, but for a short time beginning in 1980, she felt the primal anxiety most working mothers in the United States experience. 

Bill Clinton had essentially just been fired, having lost his reelection bid for governor of Arkansas. Chelsea Clinton was only 9 months old. They had to leave the governor’s mansion and find a home. Hillary was the one who had to pay for it. She needed work. Bill had other things on this mind, according to a fascinating report earlier this week from Amy Chozick at The New York Times.

“She worried about saving for Chelsea’s college, caring for her aging parents, and even possibly supporting herself should the marriage or their political dreams dissolve,” Chozick writes.

The financial stress of that time period, Chozick says, is a driving factor behind some of Hillary Clinton’s more questionable financial decisions in the ensuing years ― the controversial investments and board seats. Even the Goldman Sachs speeches.

Perhaps even more profoundly though, the experience may have informed how Clinton thinks about policy. Any woman who’s had to work and raise a family knows that the U.S. leaves us hanging. Soon enough we may have a president who understands that better than any man who’s come before her.

As first lady, in the ‘90s, when the culture was still largely hostile to working women and mothers, Clinton didn’t get a real opportunity to put that empathy into action. Indeed, in offering support for her husband’s welfare reform law she may have done real damage to poor working women.

Now she’s pushing for a raft of policies that, in theory, would help poor and middle-class working women a great deal ― including equal pay, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and subsidized child care. 

Bill and Hillary Clinton with baby Chelsea in 1980.
Bill and Hillary Clinton with baby Chelsea in 1980.

She’d be following President Obama, who has done a great deal for working parents, as The Huffington Post’s Mollie Reilly points out. That’s partially because we’ve finally arrived at a time when dual-earner parenting is increasingly common ― and not controversial. Obama also has the insights of his wife, who raised two young girls while working as a lawyer.

Back in the ‘80s, Hillary Clinton was in pretty rarefied company. Only a small percentage of women were head of household 36 years ago. The Trumpian way ruled the day for most middle-class white women ― the Republican presidential nominee has said many times that he makes the money, and his wife, whoever that’s been, is the one who does everything else.

Today the Clintons’ situation is pretty common: Women were the primary or sole breadwinner in 40 percent of all households with children under 18 in the U.S., according to Pew data from 2013. A record high number.  

How do you work full time and raise a child or children in a country that offers almost no support to families outside of 10 months of public school each year?

We’re the only country in the developed world that does not mandate some kind of paid maternity leave. If your workplace doesn’t offer it, you just suck up the lost income during one of the most financially precarious times of your life. Or you go back to work too soon and leave your infant with...

Well, your options for child care are not great. It’s expensive, of varying quality and sometimes difficult to even secure.

Once you get the kid or kids into public school, you still scramble. The school day ends hours before the work day concludes, after all. And in a country that doesn’t require employers to offer paid sick leave, you’re also at the mercy of not only your health but that of your children. For many women, each sick day costs money.

And even if you nail all those pieces, you’re still just hustling to run a household and a career.

Clinton, like millions of mothers today, had to figure some shit out.

“Hillary had a couple years of the taste of what it means to be a working mother, without any help, to have to take care of a small baby and care for your job,” James B. Blair, a close Clinton friend and lawyer, told the Times.

Of course, what happened next for the Democratic presidential nominee is utterly alien to most of us. The Clintons had Ivy League degrees, deep powerful connections and unimaginable privilege. Hillary landed a six-figure job, convinced a former friend/colleague to help with child care and managed to buy a home. With help from Blair she turned a small investment in cattle futures into a sum large enough for a down payment. (That trade would come up for much criticism later.) 

Bill did land work at a law firm, but he was making half as much as his wife and was traveling a lot of the time, according to the NY Times. Soon enough, he was back at it as governor and blah blah blah, you know the rest. 

As president, Bill Clinton didn’t seem to get the issues facing working mothers at all. His infamous Welfare reform forced millions back to work ― many of these people were mothers ― without providing any kind of support. The measure is considered a disaster in most progressive corners. Hillary Clinton supported the legislation at the time and touted it for years. That’s troubling.

Let’s hope she figures something better out this time around.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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