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Why Hillary Clinton was told not to be a trial lawyer: she didn't have a wife at home

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In 1974, Hillary Clinton learned the biggest challenge for working women: clean socks.

In her memoir Living History, Clinton tells the story of the end of the Watergate investigation, after Richard Nixon resigned. Clinton, who was a staff member on the investigation, reveals a conversation she and her fellow attorneys had as they decided what to do once their work ended:

Suddenly I was out of work. Our close-knit group of lawyers met for one last dinner together before we scattered to the four winds. Everyone talked excitedly about plans for the future. I was undecided, and when Bert Jenner asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to be a trial lawyer, like him. He told me that would be impossible.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because you won't have a wife."

"What on earth does that mean?"

Bert explained that without a wife at home to take care of all my personal needs, I would never be able to manage the demands of everyday life, like making sure I had clean socks for court. I've since wondered whether Jenner was pulling my leg or making a serious point about how tough the law still could be for women.

It's a funny story about antiquated notions about women in the workplace. But it also exposes a kind of shortsighted, classist cluelessness about the problems of working women — is doing laundry and other housework really the biggest problem of taking a new job as a woman?

Even now, before she has officially announced her plans to run for president in 2016, Clinton already appears to be running as a woman. That's a big change from her 2008 campaign, when she played down her gender: "I am not running as a woman, I am running because I believe I am the best qualified and experienced person," she told Iowa voters in 2007.

And with the issues of working women — paid leave, the wage gap, and child care, for example — a hot topic in the national economic conversation right now, Clinton will likewise have to navigate the class divide within feminism. Those class-related rifts have become more visible in recent years, particularly since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, which was criticized for primarily addressing problems of middle- to upper-class professional women.

In case you were wondering, Hillary ultimately never had to face the dirty-socks question; in the end, she chose to follow her husband (or, as she puts it, "follow her heart") to Arkansas, where Bill was running for Congress. But the dilemmas will be bigger now as she prepares her run for the presidency.