Dorothy Emma Howell (later Rodham)

By: Victoria Yates

Dorothy Emma Howell (later Rodham) was born on the 4th of June 1919 in Chicago to Edwin John Howell, a firefighter, and Della Murray. Her parents had a violent relationship, frequently falling into physical arguments, and her father sued for divorce alleging abuse and abandonment of their children (Rodham and her younger sister Isabelle). Her mother never appeared in court and the girls we left in the care of their father who, unable or unwilling to continue raising them, sent the young children, Rodham was 8, on a cross-country train journey alone to live with his parents in California.

Hilary Clinton has written that she thought of her mother's childhood when she attempted to understand the difficult childhood of her husband, Bill Clinton.

"I thought often of my own mother's neglect and mistreatment at the hands of her parents and grandparents, and how other caring adults filled the emotional void to help her," she wrote in "Living History." She added: "Her sad and lonely childhood was imprinted on my heart."

Edwin Sr. and Emma were unhappy with the arrangement, leaving the majority of the work to Rodham’s strict and austere grandmother with a penchant for wearing black and a dislike of visitors or parties. One particularly well noted example of her discipline was when she confined the young Rodham to her room for a year (excluding school) after the girl was caught having gone trick-or-treating. Rodham moved out at the age of 14, taking on the role of housekeeper and nanny for a kindly family in San Gabriel. It was her employers that encouraged her to learn to read and continue attending school. She subsequently enrolled at Alhambra High School, relishing the classes and engaging in some extra-curricular activities.

Following her graduation Rodham was contacted by her mother and her new stepfather who asked her to rejoin them in Chicago, promising to cover her expenses and allow her to attend College. Rodham hoped to enroll at Northwestern University but instead found that, upon her arrival, the offer had evaporated and her mother had in fact intended for Rodham to take up as her housekeeper.

She left and found secretarial work in Chicago, and married Hugh Ellsworth Rodham, a travelling salesman, in 1942. Hugh went on to later own a small fabric business and the couple moved to the suburb of Park Ridge where they raised their children Hillary, Hugh, and Tony. The marriage wasn’t an easy one, Hugh was known to be a dominating patriarch with a quick temper but she didn’t let this deter her and poured passion and a desire to learn into her children.

Perhaps because of her tough upbringing Rodham always urged her children to stand-up for themselves; famously sending the 4 year old Hillary back out into the neighborhood to confront a bully. Hillary has always regarded her mother as the greatest source of strength, a constant force in her life convincing her that nothing was beyond her reach. Both Rodham and her husband encouraged their daughter to attempt anything her brothers would, never accepting her gender as a barrier in her efforts and encouraging her to excel academically. 

Despite her husband’s staunch Republicanism, Rodham held fast to her Democratic beliefs (Hillary would later remark, ‘although she kept it quiet in Republican Park Ridge’), and her Methodist religion the faith in which she raised her children. In 1987 (while Clinton was Governor) Rodham and her husband moved to Little Rock, Ark. to be near her daughter and granddaughter. Whilst there, Rodham enrolled on college courses in various subjects including psychology, child development, and logic, never graduating but just enjoying the opportunity to learn.

After the death of her husband in 1993, she followed her daughter to Washington when Bill was elected and as Hillary served as Senator, also owning a home close to the family’s NY property.  Despite the public life of her daughter and son-in-law, Rodham valued her privacy and was rarely a public figure. She appeared on the campaign trail and was often seen at her daughter’s side in times of need but retained a dignified silence, speaking to the media only on sparing occasions. 

Since 2006 Rodham has lived largely with the Clinton’s in their Washington home.  

She died on November 1st 2011 at 92 years of age.

Throughout her time in the public eye Hillary has championed her mother as a powerful force in her development, staunchly urging her ambition and affording her the strength and character to persevere life’s hardships. A lifelong homemaker as most of her generation she nevertheless dreamed of more for her children.

Rodham was exemplary in showing how to live a life of dignified endurance. Her daughter has become one of the most powerful women in American politics and, while she herself never had the opportunities to achieve, there is no doubt that no small part of the credit can be left with this remarkable woman.