Vintage Hillary

In 1979 interview, Hillary Rodham explains why she didn’t use Bill Clinton’s last name

It might seem crazy now, but sticking with her maiden name possibly cost Bill Clinton “a few votes” in his successful 1978 bid to become Arkansas governor

Hillary Rodham during an appearance on a 1979 episode of "In Focus," an Arkansas public affairs show.

Take a trip down memory lane and watch footage from a decades-old TV interview in which then-Arkansas first lady Hillary Rodham, as she was known, is peppered with questions about her decision not to use Bill’s last name. In some ways, the answers she gave to those questions, and throughout the entire interview, are vintage Hillary — in more ways than one. They offer a glimpse of a political career and belief system that in the ensuing years has propelled her to being one of the most influential figures in American politics, and, now, the runaway frontrunner in the primary race for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Late in November, The Associated Press updated its style guidelines with a memo to staff reporters indicating that going forward the Democratic frontrunner should be referred to as Hillary Clinton — a departure from mentioning her maiden name, Rodham, as it, and consequently many other news organizations, had been doing. The reasoning behind the decision was simple: It’s the name Hillary prefers and it’s the one she uses to sign legal documents.

The decision by the AP brings the saga swirling around Hillary’s maiden name full circle as “Hillary Clinton” was not always her chosen moniker during her married life.

Believe it or not, questions about her last name first arose as early as 1978 while Bill Clinton was campaigning to become Arkansas governor. Though Clinton won the gubernatorial election in a landslide, conventional wisdom held that his margin of victory could have been even wider if Hillary, a practicing lawyer at the time, had taken Bill’s last name instead of using her maiden name.

As BuzzFeed, which first unearthed rare footage of the interview earlier this year, noted, Clinton’s rival in the race, Republican Frank White, frequently introduced his wife as “Mrs. Frank White” at campaign events. According to BuzzFeed, the tactic was an attack on Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism in a state that was historically conservative.

During a 1979 appearance on “In Focus,” a local public affairs TV show, that came just a month into her tenure as first lady of Arkansas and four years after she and Bill had married, Clinton discussed the decision. The show’s host acknowledged that Hillary must be tired of fielding such questions, but nevertheless asked Hillary, 32 at the time, about her “decision not to use your husband’s name.”

“It’s an understandable question,” Hillary allowed, before answering more directly. “I really did not want to mix my professional activities with his political activities,” she explained. “I didn’t want anyone ever to think that I was either taken advantage of his position or in some way riding on it — and there aren’t very many ways to persuade people of that — but I thought it essential that I try to keep as much of a distinction between my legal career and my obligations as Bill’s wife as I possibly could. Keeping my name was part of that as well as the professional reputation that I’d already built up,” she said.

“Well,” the host pressed on, “your husband won the governorship in a landslide, but we’re still led to believe that it possibly could have cost him a few votes because your name was not the same as his.”

“I’m sure that it probably did, and I regret that very much,” she said. “I regret any reason for someone voting against Bill other than on the basis of an honest disagreement with the issues. People voted against him because of his youth, I think. Some people may have voted against him because his was born in Hope instead of Jonesboro. I mean,” she said with a chuckle, “there are all sorts of why a voter might vote against a politician. They aren’t good reasons in my mind.”

The line of questioning about her last name continued.

“Does it bother you that because you don’t use your husband’s name that people think you’re too liberal, and, after all, this is not a state known for liberalism?”

“Well, I don’t know about that. Anita Bryant (the politically active singer known for her opposition to gay rights) didn’t take her husband’s name either, and I don’t think that she has a liberal image,” Hillary quipped. “I think a lot of people have images that are in no way related to reality,” she said in a remark that would be prescient given how her life has unfolded since. “Some people may think I’m too conservative, or too ‘this’ or too ‘that.’ I think that’s another one of the dangers about being in public life. One cannot live one’s life based on what somebody else’s image of you might be.”

The interviewer’s questions, viewed now at the end of 2015, may seem remarkably antiquated. And for good reason. In June, a report by The New York Times blog The Upshot showed that maiden name usage is on the rise again in the U.S. About 20 percent of women married in recent years have kept their names, a survey commissioned by The Upshot revealed. And a significant portion of recently married women have chosen a third option, such as hyphenating their names or legally changing them while continuing to use their birth names for professional reasons.

In the 1970s, about 17 percent of women who married for the first time kept their maiden name, according to the report, a number that decreased through the 1980s. The Upshot pointed out that, unlike in the 1970s, these days, women are keeping their maiden names more out of a sense of convenience than to make a political statement.

Over the years, Rodham has come and gone several times from Hillary’s public moniker. After Bill Clinton lost his campaign for re-election in 1980 and voters questioned the stability of the couple’s marriage, Hillary, unofficially, changed her last name to Clinton, according to U.S News, sometime before he ran for governor again in 1982. By 1993, a headline in The New York Times blared, “Again: It’s Hillary Rodham Clinton. Got That?” The story focused on the news media’s apparent confusion at how to print her name. An NPR story from April of this year charts the history of her name and its changes, and notes the disappointment many felt when she launched her 2016 campaign simply as Hillary Clinton, as she did in 2008. And a few weeks ago, The Atlantic delved into “the culmination of a long, politically charged, and politically important evolution in how the candidate refers to herself.”

The 1979 interview with Hillary — right down to the interference caused by the shoddy signal picked up by the antennae TV — serves as a veritable time capsule of what life in America was once like. It runs nearly an hour long and touches on many more issues besides her maiden name. Within the first 10 minutes, Clinton addresses on a number of interesting topics including having adjusted to living in a fishbowl as a public figure, and the privacy concerns that go with it. Shortly thereafter, she talks about the strains of being a “politician’s wife” while maintaining a career of her own.

Far later on, at the 51:45 mark, she’s asked about how she might help the effort to persuade the Arkansas state assembly to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Hillary predicted that the amendment was in for some “hard sledding” with state lawmakers, but noted that she’d long been a supporter of the amendment.

“I think that much of the opposition to it is based on misinformation, and I know that many people sincerely believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would cause all kinds of difficulties. I just don’t share that belief based on my own study of Constitutional history and my understanding of it,” she said.

As she continued, the early signs of what may have evolved into the 1996 book she wrote as first lady, It Takes a Village, are apparent. “One of the areas that I’ve been particularly interested in is the area of children and I think that much of the energy that, for instance, is focused [on] opposing the Equal Rights Amendment , in my opinion — and it’s just my opinion — would be better spent doing activities on behalf of abused children or trying to find some decent facilities to help care for the children of those women who have to work, ” she said. “Many times I think that people forget what it is like to raise a child alone because of being widowed or divorced, and we have so many women like that in Arkansas.”

Interestingly, as much as things have changed since that 1979 interview, they also haven’t. “The wage differential between men and women continues to grow larger in our state,” she lamented, a similar refrain to one she’s sounded on the campaign trail in recent months about the national wage gap that still exists.

Watch the complete interview below:

Related:

20 years later, revisit Hillary Clinton’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech

Notice all of the nostalgic photos on Hillary Clinton’s social media accounts?

Bill on Hillary: “Whenever I had trouble, she was a rock in our family”

Moms and daughters can’t agree on Hillary Clinton, according to report

Japanese court says married couples must use the same surname

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