By Jill Dougherty
(CNN) — Whenever Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks before a group of women from other countries she’s invariably asked whether she will run for president.
But at Monday’s opening ceremonies for the first Women in Public Service Institute at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Clinton pulled the curtain back on some of her personal history, talking to 50 young women from around the world, many of them from the Middle East and North Africa, bringing change to their countries, often in spite of great odds.
“It’s a hot kitchen with lots of men,” a young woman from Yemen told Clinton.
“If you get elected as the next president, will we…” The question was drowned out by applause. Will there be fewer wars with a woman president, she asked?
Clinton deftly sidestepped the political part of the question, but went on: “If women are not in the halls of government, then women’s voices are not going to be heard when budgets are written.”
Then, perhaps feeling more comfortable that usual at her alma mater, Clinton got personal.
“I know how daunting it can be to get started,” she said. “When I first arrived on this campus in the fall of 1965, I was acutely aware of my own limitations. I didn’t think I was smart enough or worldly enough to succeed here. I called home and I told my parents I didn’t think I should stay at Wellesley. And my father immediately said, ‘Well, then come home. Go to school near home.'”
“But my mother,” she continued, “a women who had been abandoned as a child and had to fight for everything she had in life, said, ‘You cannot quit. You must persevere. You must go on.’ And of course, she was right. And I grew to love Wellesley and to test myself against limits that I experienced and then to try to go beyond them.”
As the questions went on, Clinton began to sound like she was dishing the dirt with some girlfriends.
A woman from Israel asked her how she got into politics.
As a student, she said, she was interested in how government works. She ran for and served as college government president.
“But I didn’t believe that I would go into electoral politics,” Clinton said. “I thought I would be more of an activist in civil society.”
It wasn’t until 1998, she said, when she was approached by political leaders in New York who asked her if to run for the U.S. Senate.
“I said ‘no.’ I said that was not going to happen. And they were very persistent and they kept coming at me and kept arguing as to why I should run. And they, of course, had ulterior motives. That’s just between you and me,” Clinton said as the audience chuckled along.
She was going to be up against New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, she said, “And the Democrats in New York didn’t think they could find anyone silly enough to run against him — but thought that if I ran I could at least make a respectable showing. I was kind of their sacrificial lamb, I think.”
She went to New York for a sports event, she said, and saw big banner behind the podium where she was going to speak. “The banner said: ‘Dare to Compete.’
“So this young woman introduces me,” Clinton told the Wellesley audience, and she shook hands with a young sportswoman. ‘She whispers in my ear, ‘Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton. Dare to compete.’
“I thought oh, no! Oh, boy. That did it!” Clinton said to another round of laughter and applause.
Did Clinton know where she was going four decades ago? No.
“I never could have sat where you are sitting and said to myself: Okay. I’m going to graduate from Wellesley, then I’m going to go to Yale Law School, then I’m going to meet a guy from Arkansas and I’m going to fall in love, and then I’m going to move to Arkansas, and then I’m going to marry him, and then he’s going to be governor, and then he’s going to President. I mean, that is not how life works,” Clinton said to roars of laughter.
“I mean, really, right?”
Hillary Clinton’s advice to the young women at Wellesley?
“Be open to opportunities, because when I was here all those years ago I never could have predicted the course of my life, never.”
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