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Finding the inner schoolgirl

Hillary Rodham Clinton still defying customs, boys, and all the odds

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 4:59 a.m. CST

(MCT) — A photo of Hillary Clinton as a schoolgirl was running around the Internet last week and it was startling how much that girl looked like the woman Clinton is today.

The girl in the photo had bright eyes, chipmunk cheeks, hair lapping at her shoulders, and a sharp, friendly look that suggested she was fun — unless you provoked her into kicking your butt.

She wasn’t as blond then, and her skin still had a youthful shine, but that girl was clearly the woman seen jousting with men in Congress on Wednesday at hearings on the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

Talk about women in combat: There was Hillary under fire. Passionate Hillary, smiling Hillary, tart Hillary, Hillary earnest and exasperated and pointedly shuffling papers while she waited out some interrogator’s tantrum.

It was schoolgirl Hillary pushing back every time she got shoved, and it made a fireworks finale to her four years as secretary of state.

Soon, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be just Hillary again. No official title, no official job. She says she’s not retiring, exactly, just “stepping off the very fast track.”

She’s leaving with the kind of poll numbers — two-thirds of Americans approve of her — typically reserved for saints and long-dead presidents, the kind presidential candidates can only dream of.

She’s leaving strong, and yet there remains an army of Hillary haters. I don’t mean people who thoughtfully differ with her politics, but the ones who hate her, pure and simple, with the petulant fanaticism of playground bullies.

To them, she should be grateful. The more they hate on her, the more admiration she earns, and the more powerfully symbolic she becomes.

One caption attached to the schoolgirl photo that made the rounds last week in reaction to the Benghazi hearings was this: “Hillary Clinton wrote NASA as a child inquiring how to become an astronaut. NASA replied that girls could not be astronauts. So she became the world’s most influential woman instead.”

Clinton taps into the inner schoolgirl of a lot of women, the girl we remember being, who had to defy customs and boys and odds to become the person we believed we could be.

A lot of women identify with her not only because she was that girl but because she has spent much of her life helping other girls. In the past four years, as she traveled the world, she made it a mission: Improve a girl’s life and you improve a woman’s life. Improve the lives of women and you improve the security and stability of a community, a country.

In recent years, Clinton seems to have been liberated back into her full self, that schoolgirl that so many women lose as they struggle to shape themselves in a world where power remains predominantly shaped by men.

“I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now,” she told CNN not long ago. “Because, you know, if I want to wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back.”

As Clinton has grown into herself — or back into herself — the American public has grown into her, and into the idea of women at the highest levels of power.

Even if she doesn’t run for president, she has made it easier for the woman who does.

Goodbye, Hillary, for now.

Rest up. Take some long walks. Hang out with your friends. Go dancing. Stay in touch with that bright-eyed schoolgirl who wanted to be an astronaut.

———

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted at mschmich@tribune.com.

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