Sunday, November 6, 2011

125: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dorothy Rodham

Dear Followers:

Many of you might think that this blog would focus on Hillary Clinton, who is wearing gray in the above photo, because she was First Lady for eight years, a former US Senator, Presidential candidate, and our current Secretary of State. But, instead, I'd like to pay tribute to her mother, Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham, who died on November 1st at the age of 92.

Dorothy Rodham had a childhood that has been described as "Dickensian." She was born in Chicago in 1919 and her sister, Isabelle, was born in 1924: Dorothy's father (Edwin Howell) was a fireman and her mother (Della) was a neglectful parent. The couple had an unhappy, often violent marriage, and in 1927 Dorothy's father filed for divorce. Della did not show up in court, but her sister (Frances Czeslawski) appeared and testified against her. Edwin was granted custody of his daughters, but was either unwilling or unable to care for them.

When Dorothy was only eight years old, she was put in charge of her three-year old sister for their four-day train trip (on their own) from Chicago to Alhambra, California (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Unfortunately, her paternal grandparents were ill-prepared to take care of two young girls. Her grandmother (whom she remembered as a strict woman who wore black dresses, punished the girls severely for small mistakes, and wouldn't let them have visitors or attend parties) was once so angry at Dorothy for going trick-or-treating on Halloween that she ordered the girl to stay in her room for one full year - except for attending school. Fortunately, when the grandmother's sister learned about the punishment, Dorothy's "restriction" was lifted after four months.

At age 14, Dorothy moved out of her grandparents' home (14: Selective Disassociation) and accepted a job as a housekeeper, cook and nanny for a family that gave her room, board, and $3.00 a week. They encouraged the young teenager to read and go to school, so Dorothy enrolled at Alhambra High School where she joined both the Spanish and the Scholarship clubs.

In High School her speech and drama teacher (Miss Drake) and her English teacher (Miss Zellhoefer) let Dorothy know that they really believed in her. She paid tribute to them both in a book marking the school's centennial in 1998 (4: Supportive Someone). But after graduating in 1937, she made the brave decision to return to Chicago - where she hoped to enroll at Northwestern University - because her mother had told her that her new stepfather would help her pay for college (11: Risk Addiction).

Unfortunately, Della only wanted her daughter to be nearby in order to work as her housekeeper, so Dorothy found work as a secretary at a textile company and in 1942 married a travelling salesman named Hugh Ellsworth Rodham.

They moved to the suburbs and had three children (Hillary, Hugh and Tony), and even though Dorothy never had a career of her own she encouraged her daughter (as well as both her boys) to get a good education and engage in meaningful work. In spite of a miserable childhood, she managed to make the most of life as a mid-century American housewife. Hillary once paid this tribute to Dorothy: "I'm still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman" (8: Turning No into Yes).

After her death, President Obama said "Ms. Rodham was a remarkable person. Anybody who knows her history knows what a strong, determined and gifted person she was. For her to have been able to live the life that she did, and to see her daughter succeed at the pinnacle of public service in this country [was] I'm sure, deeply satisfying to her."

Looking forward to your comments...

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