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Commencement

Hillary Clinton Receives Radcliffe Medal

5.25.18

From left: Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lizabeth Cohen, and Maura Healey

Photograph by Tony Rinaldo


From left: Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lizabeth Cohen, and Maura Healey

Photograph by Tony Rinaldo

Sweltering heat didn’t deter some 2,000 Radcliffe alumnae and affiliates from gathering for today’s presentation of the 2018 Radcliffe Medal to Hillary Rodman Clinton. The honor is awarded yearly to “an individual who has had a transformative impact on society.” In introductory remarks, Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, confessed: “Every year, we strive to illuminate aspects of our medalist’s life and work that are not widely known but help us understand her achievements. You can imagine that this was very difficult to do when it comes to Secretary Clinton.”

Nevertheless, she continued, there was still an important story to tell: Clinton was raised by a conservative father, whose politics she absorbed, and eventually repudiated. When it came time to apply to college, Cohen explained, “As Clinton recalled, ‘My mother thought I should go wherever I wanted. My father said I was free to do that, but he wouldn’t pay if I went west of the Mississippi or to Radcliffe, which he had heard was full of beatniks. Smith and Wellesley, which he had never heard of, were acceptable.’” She added quickly: “Hillary, some of those beatniks your father warned you about are here today, celebrating their fiftieth reunion.” (Later, during Clinton’s public conversation with Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey ’92, the former presidential candidate recalled the drive with her parents to Wellesley: “We went through Harvard Square, and just at the most normal-looking person, my father would say, ‘See, I told you.’”)

At Wellesley, in 1969, Clinton became the college’s first student speaker at a commencement, and urged classmates to “make what appears to be impossible possible.” “The Radcliffe historians among us, and certainly the fiftieth-reunion class, will remember with some pride that Radcliffe students had succeeded in demanding a student commencement speaker the year before Wellesley, in 1968,” Cohen said. “Rachel Lieberman gave that address, and in Lieberman’s own telling, Clinton acknowledged that she and her classmates might never have had the courage to demand their own student speaker if Radcliffe hadn’t pulled it off first. Even if Hugh Rodham kept us from claiming Clinton as an alumna, we can at least take a little credit for her early success.” 

The presentation of the award followed a morning discussion about America’s role on the global stage among panelists Michèle Flournoy ’83, David Ignatius ’72, Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Meghan O’Sullivan, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, J.D. ’85, that was moderated by Nicholas Burns, Goodman Family professor of the practice of international relations. After Cohen’s introduction, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, LL.D. ’97, who received the Radcliffe Medal in 2001, delivered her own reflections on Clinton. She recalled their traveling the world together while she was Secretary of State and Clinton was First Lady, and Clinton’s lifelong role in expanding opportunities for women—the theme that echoed across the comments of all of the day’s speakers. “I didn’t ever think I was going to be Secretary of State because how could a woman possibly be Secretary of State?” Albright said. “And I now know that I would not have been Secretary of State if it hadn’t been for Hillary. And the reason I know that is because Bill Clinton said so, publicly”—prompting laugher from the audience. 

Clinton spent much of the afternoon conversation encouraging her audience to fix what she perceives as a crisis in government by running for office for themselves, by doing more than unseating politicians they oppose. She recalled her visit to Cairo in 2011 after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down:

I met with a large group of the students who had led the Tahrir Square demonstrations, and I asked them, “So, what is next for you?” And they looked at me like, “What a ridiculous question—we’ve done what we came to do. We got rid of Mubarak.” And I said, “What do you think happens next?’” And they said, “We’re going to have a democracy. We’re going to move quickly into a better future.” I said, “Are any of you planning to run for office in this new democracy?” (No.) “Are any of you planning to start political parties to compete?” (No.) “So you’ve built up all this social capital driven by social media, but you’re not ready to take the next step. There are only two organized groups other than the Mubarak regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. So if you don’t help to fill the void, it’s going to be a contest between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.” And—indeed—that’s what happened.

In the course of the wide-ranging conversation, Clinton condemned the gun lobby, the Electoral College (“It’s absolutely contrary to ‘one person, one vote’”), and political attacks on higher education; in response to a question from Healey about which corporation she would choose to run, she said, unhesitatingly, “Facebook.” When asked who inspired her as a child, she said, “My mother.” On the minds of many of the day’s speakers was the recently canceled summit with North Korea. “Many of us who have had the opportunity to be involved with negotiations were quite skeptical that pushing as quickly as the [Trump] administration did to get a summit, without the groundwork being laid, without the expertise that should be consulted, would be successful,” Clinton said. “So now with this pause…I’m hoping there will be a chance to regroup and see if any of this is possible…We’ve been down this road numerous times with the North Koreans.”

Near the end of the discussion, Healey asked Clinton to offer advice on raising strong daughters. The medalist answered a somewhat different question: “Reading, talking, singing to your child, building their brain cells—there’s a lot of very practical advice. But I want to just mention one area that I feel really strongly about. We need to develop empathy and kindness in our children—for themselves and for others.” She recalled, as a child, getting an opportunity through her church to babysit the children of migrant workers: “They were Mexican farm workers who were moving north with the harvest, and a group of us girls would go out to their camp and watch the little kids so the mothers and fathers and older brothers and sisters could go out and work on Saturday. At that very young age, I got to experience what to me seemed like a total revelation…When their parents would pull up at the end of an old dusty road on an old, beat-up bus, coming back from the fields, no matter what game we were playing or how we were entertaining the kids, they would break loose and run as fast as they could into the arms of their parents.” This type of “radical empathy,” she suggested, must provide the underpinning of a diverse, cohesive political union.

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