Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age with Hillary's Class - Wellesley '69
By Miriam Horn
Of all the revolutions made by the members of the class of '69, none has been more radical than their wholesale entry into the professional world. Though many of the women had experimented with political activity in the sixties movements, work would set them, unlike any previous generation of women, firmly within the public sphere.
Work promised many freedoms and possibilities: independence, adventure, the chance to pursue passionate curiosities, even perhaps some influence on the world. Most of all, work afforded an escape from their mothers' small domestic chambers into the larger spaces where they might become "self-made." But entering the workplace also required of these women their first serious negotiations between the personal and political. Individually and collectively, they had to consider anew what it meant to be a woman, in harmony with or opposition to the expectations of what had long been men's worlds.
For some, work would fulfill all their hopes. Entering into worlds where women had not been before, they discovered a liberating absence of the clear expectations laid out for them at home and in relations with men. On this tabula rasa, women could experiment with new ways of being: more competent and controlled, less racked by the complexities of domestic and emotional life. For others, the world of work would prove unexpectedly hostile, alien in its values, and isolating, with neither the community of women they had known at Wellesley nor the solidarities of the sixties movements. Nearly all, having breached the border between men's and women's separate spheres, would struggle for a deeper integration of those two worlds: importing into the workplace the gentler habits associated with home, bringing home such "public" values as justice and equality.
It was 1984, fittingly, when Kris Olson Rogers began to doubt the moral possibility of remaining obedient to the government she served. Working as a federal prosecutor in Portland, Kris was ordered by Oregon U.S. attorney Charles Turner to get an indictment on a former Black Panther then living in town. The evidence against the man was flimsy but adequate for the task: Informants, disguised as housepainters, had ransacked his home and found in an upstairs closet a box containing a disassembled gun, which they had stolen and turned over to the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Kris knew, as did her boss, that in five minutes she could run an ATF agent before the grand jury and indict the defendant on hearsay, no matter the merits of the charges.
It was no accident that Charles Turner, a conservative Christian and Reagan appointee, had chosen Kris for this task. From the moment of his arrival, Kris had felt Turner's disdain for her, the "liberal lady prosecutor," as she puts it, now in his charge. There was no doubt who would win their contest of wills: In an administration recently censured by its own Civil Rights Commission for having reduced by half the numbers of women in the judiciary and the White House, Kris could count few allies. Nor could she easily afford to jeopardize her job, with two small children to support and both parents seriously ill.
The story of her confrontation with Turner is one Kris has told many times. In the course of those many tellings, she has shaped it into an allegory, a parable on the question that has also plagued Hillary Rodham Clinton: how much to compromise personal principles in order to get and keep power to do things in the world.
Kris and her husband, Jeff, had gone to Oregon soon after law school, drawn by their love for the great northwestern forests and mountains and sea. They settled first in a country house all overgrown with blackberries, then moved into a big, silent house ringed by hemlock and Douglas fir at the edge of Portland. It was, in the early seventies, a common pilgrimage. Celebrated in the best-selling novel Where the Wasteland Ends as a secessionist "ecotopia," the shadowy woods of western Oregon offered perfect refuge for dreamy back-to-the-landers and radical environmentalists and marijuana growers in exile from California. More than a few imagined themselves founding the kind of alternative society proposed by Charles Reich and elaborated in the Yale Review of Law and Social Action when Kris and Hillary were contributors: One article called for "the migration of large numbers of people to a single state for the purpose of effecting the peaceful political takeover of that state through the elective process." These "alienated or 'deviant' members of society" would then test the elasticity of such traditional institutions as marriage and democracy, "providing a living laboratory for social experiment through radical federalism." The radical federalists already in residence-loggers and fishermen, most of them-did not see in the newcomers kindred spirits, and their mutual hostility made for a volatile mix. Even today, the Northwest remains a place of extremes reminiscent of those times. With Earthfirsters and the Oregon Christian Association both committed to principled violations of the law, it is a perfect place for a woman with complex notions about the proper balance between accommodation and dissent.
When she accepted a job as a federal prosecutor in Oregon, Kris told herself that it would be a brief, strategic sojourn: She would go inside as "a fifth columnist" only to become a better defense attorney by "learning the enemy's ways." As it turned out, she remained through three administrations, persuaded over time by the justification offered by her first boss and mentor, U.S. attorney Sid Lezak-that, as a prosecutor, she "could do more." While a defense attorney could react only to other people's legal initiatives, Kris could initiate her own: against white-collar and environmental crimes, for civil and tribal rights. The last would become a principal focus of her work. Having first fallen in love with Oregon on a visit with Lezak to the Warm Springs Reservation to watch ritual dances and feast on buffalo stroganoff-the same year that the American Indian Movement seized Wounded Knee and brought native rights to the foreground of left consciousness-Kris became one of the nation's experts in tribal courts and the protection of cultural traditions and religious freedom. She was also the first woman in Oregon to prosecute high-profile criminal cases: kidnappings, bank robberies, and drugs.