Most women won’t be able to follow in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps—unless they’re already rich

The first family.
The first family.
Image: Reuters/David Becker
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On Jun. 7, Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to become the presumptive nominee for a major political party. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” she declared. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”

Clinton’s life is a story of female exceptionalism—and exclusion. As a child she wanted to be an astronaut and wrote to NASA for advice. They wrote her back: “We are not accepting girls.” At 18, she attended Wellesley, an all-women’s school, at a time when the Ivy League was restricted to men. At 22, she decided to become a lawyer—at a time when less than 5% of lawyers or judges were women—and was admitted to Yale Law School, where she was one of only 27 women in a class of 235. Hillary entered professional life in the 1970s, an era where women could not legally get a credit card, keep their job if they were pregnant, or report sexual harassment. When her husband Bill Clinton ran for governor, under political pressure, Hillary changed her last name from Rodham to Clinton.

And yet, when Bill ran for president in 1992, TIME magazine ran a cover story called “The Hillary Factor,” questioning whether her education, intelligence, and ambition hurt her husband. When the Clintons attempted to spin the narrative by emphasizing Hillary’s motherhood, TIME called her a “yuppie over-doting on her daughter.” Thus began a 24-year national neurosis over Hillary Clinton and the role of well-educated, ambitious women in American society—one that seemed to finally cede in her favor last week. Social media lit up with posts from excited parents telling their daughters that, they, too, can be president someday.

But can they?

Like all women of her generation, Hillary faced formidable sexism, fighting for rights women now take for granted. But like many women of her generation, she also benefited from being born in an era when upward mobility was arguably more feasible, at least economically.

Though now multi-millionaires, the Clintons came from relatively modest beginnings. Bill grew up in poverty in Arkansas, while Hillary grew up in an Illinois family that only reached middle class stability in the mid-20th century. The Clintons rise to power was not buoyed by inherited wealth, but by a system that allowed lower and middle-class baby boomers increasing access to higher education and prestigious jobs. But the contemporary versions of Bill and Hillary Clinton—talented middle-class or lower-class students from the Midwest or South—may find that achieving the same success will be stymied by their family’s class status or their geographical distance from centers of power. The prototype for a future Hillary is someone who grew up more like Chelsea Clinton—wealthy, connected, and able to pursue multiple advanced degrees.

While gender barriers have eased over the past forty years, economic barriers have tightened. Older generations of women have diversified once closed fields: female lawyers are now common, the number of female politicians is still disproportionately low but has been slowly rising, and we have our first female presidential nominee. But the path to professional success is increasingly narrow, dependent on expensive advanced degrees and the financial ability to work in prestigious fields for no or low pay in America’s most expensive cities. Momentum forged by earlier generations has stalled.

The hard work and ambition of women like the young Hillary Clinton have much less currency in today’s system, because only one type of currency—hard currency—counts.

When Hillary Clinton entered Wellesley in 1965, annual tuition was $3,600. This was not cheap–median income was $6900–but it is a far cry from today, when it is $45,078, not counting room and board and other fees, which bring the annual cost to $63, 916. US median income is currently $51,939–less than one year at Wellesley. Women of Hillary’s generation had cheaper educational alternatives: Wellesley’s fee was about as high as tuition went, and many public universities were still free. Today, after decades of exorbitant increases and slashed public funding, even a public university leaves most students saddled with debt.

When Hillary entered Yale in 1969, the average tuition at an Ivy League law school was about $2,000 per year. Today, a year at Yale will set you back $80,229, with tuition costing $57,615. Already burdened with undergraduate debt, many do not want to continue on to law school—long a starting point for those seeking careers in government or politics—particularly since there is little work available upon graduation. In 2014, only 60% of law school graduates found full-time jobs that required them to pass the bar exam. The average debt for a law student is now $127,000, a rate that increased by 25% for private schools and 34% for private schools between 2006 and 2014. Due to the decrease in jobs and surplus of lawyers, law clerkships pay as little as $10 per hour.

Aspiring female politicians who do not pursue law often choose policy institutions as an alternative, but those positions similarly require expensive advanced degrees and unpaid labor. Hillary Clinton, like most policy officials, does not pay her interns. Cost of living in cities with a high concentration of policy jobs, such as New York or Washington DC, have skyrocketed over the past decade, while wages stagnated and student debt rose, putting the younger generation in an impossible bind.

In her Jun. 7 speech, Hillary praised her mother, who had grown up in poverty, and remarked in awe that a woman of such humble means had raised a daughter who became a presidential nominee. It was a touching moment—but we may not see many more like it. As economist Joseph Stiglitz notes, nowadays “the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country.”

Opportunity hoarding by wealthy families is not new: for much of American history, it dominated our economic and political landscape. Political, intellectual and business leaders were often beneficiaries of inherited wealth, and non-white groups–particularly African-Americans–were purposefully locked out due to institutions like slavery and Jim Crow that prevented generation after generation of families from attaining the money and status of their white peers.

What is new is the realization that this mid-20th century period of upward mobility–the conditions many deem synonymous with the “American Dream”–was an aberration. The baby boomers benefited from a meritocracy that valued education over background, and came of age when wages were relatively high. These structural advantages began to disappear in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the cost of education began to climb and wages began to stagnate.

And while social media has offered a more democratic pathway in terms of political self-expression–particularly for female and/or non-white Americans–it rarely provides the stable income one needs to build a future in politics. Twitter fame does not pay the bills, and often comes, for women, with constant harassment that make many reluctant to participate. Even Hillary Clinton’s female supporters have felt compelled to converse in secret Facebook groups.

Aspiring female politicians face, as they always have, barriers due to gender and race. But they also face far more financial constraints than when Clinton was a young adult. An entrenched meritocracy, relying on expensive credentials, has replaced the old aristocracy.

In November, Clinton may finally shatter the glass ceiling, but the road to success for young women remains paved in gold. If Clinton truly wants to transform politics, she should focus on policy reforms that allow lower-class and middle-class girls to follow her own path.