College Classmate Recalls Clinton's Campus Activism for Women, Minorities

'She was smart, assertive, vociferous and opinionated – even a bit intimidating,' Chana Sperber tells Haaretz of her former classmate at Wellesley.

A yearbook photograph of Chana Sperber, nee Phyllis Magnus, and Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, at Wellesely College.
Courtesy of Chana Sperber

As a college freshman more than 50 years ago, Chana Sperber remembers one student in her political science class at Wellesley College who was clearly ahead of her time.

“You couldn’t help but notice her,” recalls the Orthodox mother of 10, who has since moved to Israel and lives in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“She was smart, assertive, vociferous and opinionated – even a bit intimidating.”

It was a class on minority rights, and as Sperber recounts, Hillary Rodham, just 18 years old at the time, had already emerged as a champion of women’s rights – the only student in the class who would argue with the professor by citing the mother of all feminists, Betty Friedan.

“I remember Hillary asking why women’s rights were not part of the discussion on minority rights,” recalls Sperber, who back then – before she had married and embraced Orthodox Judaism – was known as Phyllis Magnus.

“That was the first time I heard anyone ever say that minority rights included women’s rights. Remember, this was 1966. Most of us were not there yet.”

As hard as it is for Hillary Clinton loyalists to understand the bad rap their candidate gets, it is doubly confounding for Sperber: After all, the Hillary she knew and remembers was an idealistic young woman who wanted nothing more than to make the world a better place.

Chana Sperber, college classmate to Hillary Clinton, recalls her campus activism for women, minorities in talk with Haaretz. November 7, 2016
Emil Salman

“She is anything but the power-hungry monster people describe,” asserts Sperber. “This was a woman who was really passionate and committed to helping others.  I know that when people enter politics, something happens to them, but I’m convinced that her basic values and goals have not changed.”

Knowing the candidate as she does, not only is the prospect of Clinton losing the elections completely inconceivable to her, but so too, says Sperber,  is the prospect of her even “not winning by a landslide.”

Like Clinton, Sperber grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, although the two women were not acquainted before they met at Wellesley.

Both grew up in conservative Republican homes, but while attending the elite women’s college during the tumultuous 1960s, like many other young educated Americans of those days, they came to embrace progressive politics.  Clinton, in fact, had served as head of the Young Republicans Club at Wellesley her freshman year.

But already then, as Sperber recalls, she was becoming active in liberal causes. “She took it upon herself to integrate what she called the ‘lily-white’ Churches in Wellesley. There were only eight black women at Wellesley back then, but she would bring them with her to these churches.”

Clinton’s battle for minority rights at Wellesley also included Jewish students. “At the time, there was a policy that many of us found upsetting,” relays Sperber. “Blacks were made to room with blacks, and Jews were made to room with Jews, even if you didn’t ask to. The administration thought it was better that way. That policy was eliminated with Hillary’s help.”

Also problematic for Jewish students like herself was a ban imposed on bringing special foods, matzo and challah for example, into the dining hall. “Little things like that, Hillary got involved in, too,” says Sperber. But perhaps Clinton’s biggest contribution to Jewish campus life at the time, as she recalls, was helping the Jewish students set up a local Hillel chapter with a salaried director.

Chana Sperber, college classmate to Hillary Clinton, recalls her campus activism for women, minorities in talk with Haaretz. November 7, 2016
Emil Salman

The New England liberal arts college was in those years run by a very conservative administration. “Women were not allowed to wear pants,” according to Sperber. “They were not allowed to have a car, and except between 2 and 4 on Sunday afternoons with the door open, they were not allowed to have male visitors in the dorms.”

Clinton succeeded in gaining concessions from the administration, says Sperber, because she knew how to work the system. “She was not a revolutionary. Rather she was effective in getting what she wanted because she knew how to listen to all sides and was not abrasive.”

The summer after their freshman year, both Clinton and Sperber returned to Chicago where they canvassed against racial discrimination in housing and had the opportunity to attend a major speech by Martin Luther King Jr. “My feeling is that his assassination a few years later is what turned Hillary into a Democrat,” surmises Sperber.

Over the following years,  among other projects she promoted as a student government leader, Clinton organized transportation for student activists like herself and Sperber interested in volunteering in Roxbury, a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Boston.

“We would tutor children there and babysit,” Sperber recalls. She also helped found the student organization WAR (Wellesley Against Racism), while serving as president of the student body.

It was Clinton’s commencement address that, according to Sperber, marked “the beginning of her path to the White House.” A political science major and honors student, she was the first student ever selected at Wellesley to speak at graduation. As Sperber attests, “it was a very big deal.”

Her classmates all helped provide Clinton with input and received advanced copies of then speech. But then, much to their surprise, no sooner had she risen to the podium than she went off script.

“Edward Brooke, who was a black senator from Massachusetts and a Republican, spoke before Hillary,” as Sperber relays. “Rather than read from her prepared speech, when it came her time to talk, she began speaking off the cuff and lashed out at what she called ‘acquisitive individualism’ and the capitalist values that Brooke and the Republicans represented.”

The two classmates have since taken dramatically different paths in life. Sperber, who woke up to her Jewish identity in Wellesley, has been primarily devoted to her large family (which now includes 20 grandchildren) in the more than four decades that have since passed.

“My work was always secondary – I hope significant, but always secondary to the main job,” she concedes. Sperber works as a family therapist and her husband Rabbi Daniel Sperber is a professor of Talmudic studies at Bar Ilan University and a recipient of the distinguished Israel Prize in Jewish studies. He is one of the leading figures in the Israeli Open Orthodoxy movement, which encourages an expanded role for women in prayer services and greater acceptance of the LGBT community.

Since graduation, Clinton and Sperber have met twice in Israel: once, several years ago, during a meeting of the local Wellesley alumnae club when Clinton, then secretary of state, was visiting the country on a diplomatic mission, and before that, when she accompanied her husband Bill Clinton, then president, on a trip.

 “When she was here, she was very willing to talk and reminisce, but I’m not sure if she really remembers me,” concedes Sperber.

Did Sperber ever imagine her old classmate might one day become the first woman president of the United States? “Yes,” she says, “on that May afternoon in 1969, when she challenged Senator Edward Brooke at our graduation, it was pretty obvious where she was heading.”

Sperber proceeds to share an old family joke she’s been repeating endlessly this week. “In my family, we were all fans of the Chicago Cubs,” she says. “Once when my father was asked if a woman would ever be president of the United States – and he was quite the conservative – he said that would happen when the Cubs won the World Series. How about that? Well, I hope it’s true. I really hope it’s true.