Meet Hillary Clinton's Inner Circle, the Queenmakers Who Won't Rest Until She's President

Clinton celebrates on stage after she accepted the nomination during the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty

Updated | They came for Bill but left with Hillary.

San Francisco philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell says the first time she was in the same room with Hillary Clinton was at a Bay Area fundraiser for Bill Clinton, in the early 1990s. Hillary was there to deliver the introduction for her husband, and Buell was instantly smitten—but not by the candidate. "I remember thinking, She is going to run for president someday—it should be her," Buell, the founder of Esprit clothing, recalls. "It wasn't that I was turned off by him, I was just so attracted to her. I could feel her dedication."

Philanthropist Swanee Hunt, who spends much of the money she inherited from her Texas oilfield magnate father, a conservative, on progressive causes and candidates, has a similar memory. In October 1992, she organized a fundraiser in Denver called "Serious Women, Serious Issues and Serious Money," aiming to raise a million dollars for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Hillary was one of the key speakers. "I sat there in the audience listening to Hillary talking about the economy, and I thought, Holy Toledo, how can someone stand up there with no notes and sound like the head of the World Bank or Federal Reserve?" Later, Hillary called to thank Hunt for her contribution, Hunt recalls. "I said, 'Oh, actually it isn't for him, it's for you.'"

Judith Hope, who was New York state Democratic chairwoman at the time, first realized Clinton's potential at a Manhattan women's leadership luncheon in 1996. "I looked at the women in the room, and I saw that she absolutely captivated them with her intelligence and her humor. She just had it altogether. And I thought to myself, This woman would make a terrific candidate."

Buell and Hunt went on to become top Hillary Clinton donors, and Hope helped launch and organize her 2000 Senate campaign—her first foray into electoral politics. The three now belong to a small circle—all women, all around her age—who have road-tripped with her and slumber-partied with her, quaffed martinis with her, cried with her and laughed at the sarcastic jokes she never shares in public. They've been the recipients of her emailed snippets of poetry and flattered by her keen memory for their ideas and input. And they have been waiting and planning and spending for years to put her in the White House.

Clinton is welcomed by U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt, as she arrives July 10 1997, at Vienna's Schwechat Airport for a six-day visit to Austria during her husbands presidency. Clinton was in town to address a conference on "Vital Voices: Women in Democracy," where hundreds of women meet to discuss ways to strengthen their roles in the post-Communist world. Rudi Blaha/AP

'This Serious Sisterhood'

For the past 40 years, Hillary Clinton has surrounded herself with deeply loyal women—political pros, many of them a little younger than her—and they often seem to have been selected for their diversity—black, brown, Latino, Muslim, Jewish—as much as their gender and brains. Among the closest longtime female politicos are ad guru Mandy Grunwald, lawyer Cheryl Mills, former Chief of Staff Maggie Williams and aide Huma Abedin.

In addition to the swarm of strategists and pollsters constantly calibrating her look and message, Hillary relies for advice—and unconditional love and money—on a kitchen cabinet of close friends who idolize her, who believe she is a force for moral good in American politics and who dearly want to see a female president. "Here is a generation of women who truly believed that in their lifetime they would never see a woman elected president," says Debbie Walsh, head of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.

Like their candidate, most came of age in the 1960s. Leaf through their yearbooks and wedding albums and you find bell-bottoms, long hair and granny glasses—the same look Hilary rocked at Wellesley. Flip forward a few pages and there they are in shoulder pads, often the only woman in sight at the law firm or corporate office. They started getting jobs before 1980, when more women identified as housewives than as workers, and were part of the social revolution that has led to women now making up almost 50 percent of the American workforce.

Many in the Clinton circle were, like her, "firsts." A close high school buddy was the flight attendant who led the fight against airline gender discrimination. Another was the first in her business school.

Some made their own fortunes, some inherited money or married rich, but all started writing big checks at a time—not that long ago—when men handled that dirty business. Clinton's top female donors now rank among the 150 most generous givers—who are still mostly male—to Clinton super PACs. That is a mark of dubious distinction in the era of Citizens United , but a milestone in the rise of female political power.

If they were men, they might be called kingmakers. Reporters would have encountered them in hotel lobby bars, tossing back scotch as they tried to spin the media. But these queenmakers drink herbal tea (and the occasional martini) and pepper their talk with New Age-isms like "our journey" and "the goddess of light."

"We are the wind beneath her wings," says Buell, a graduate of the very '60s, very New Age Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California. "We will do anything for her, and she knows it."

During her 2008 campaign, Clinton tried to rally women around her with the help of Esprit clothing co-founder, Susie Tompkins Buell, at a fundraising luncheon in San Francisco, February 23, 2007. Paul Sakuma/AP

No Sex and the City in the VIP Room

Hillary Clinton has been a prominent part of the national scene since 1991, but her political career only kicked off in 1999, in New York, where a clique of women were eager to take a humiliated first lady with great ambitions and put her in the U.S. Senate. In the course of that transformation, Clinton headed the first major campaign launched, fueled and steered by women.

After meeting Hillary in 1996, Judith Hope had been hoping she would move to New York and make a run at one of that state's Senate seats. Hope knew something about firsts—she had been elected the first female town supervisor of East Hampton, New York, and then the first female chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. She wanted Clinton to become the first woman elected to statewide office in New York.

Many women come to New York City and live its Sex and the City side in their 20s and 30s. Hillary arrived in Gotham on the other side of 50, and the kind of gossip that kept her up involved Cabinet members and congressmen, not Manolo Blahniks. She was internationally famous, a bright policy-wonk who'd spent her adult life in Arkansas and D.C. And she had spent the previous eight years in the East Wing, in an increasingly defensive crouch, fending off attacks on everything from her botched push for health care reform to her ever-changing hairstyles.

She had also just endured the humiliations of a faithful wife to a serially unfaithful president. What many New York women saw when they looked at Hillary Clinton was a woman who still sometimes slipped into the syrupy, Southern-fried accent she'd picked up in Little Rock, standing by a man they would have turfed long ago. Now they were being asked to crown her a senator.

Hope accompanied Clinton on her first statewide "listening tour" and was encouraged. Upstate women—grandmothers with granddaughters, working women, mothers—poured into town squares from Oswego to Cooperstown to meet the first lady. But suburban and city women were not so starstruck. "To my great surprise, there was a lot of resistance," Hope says. "They just didn't like her, and they didn't know why."

Hope and a few fervent Clinton fans in New York City began hosting meetings in apartments and townhouses for other women—to answer questions and concerns about their candidate. The message they were delivering was "Let me tell you about the Hillary I know," Hope recalls. "Let me tell you how she drove through a rainstorm to my husband's funeral, or how she helped me when my child was sick. This woman has committed so many acts of kindness in her life to friends and strangers. People are stunned when they hear these things, because she doesn't communicate it. She keeps that side of her closed off."

Philanthropist Jill Iscol was among those who opened her living room for the political version of a book club and also went evangelizing to other homes. "It was very difficult," she recalls. "Women who were not behind her were drinking the [opposition] Kool-Aid. We would go in, and they would have dug up ugly info. These are smart Upper West Side women, and they thought they were so informed…. Everybody was bombarded with falsehoods. We tried to change minds, and we did."

Iscol had met the Clintons on Martha's Vineyard in the early 1990s and commenced what she calls a "journey" by writing her first "very large" check to the Democratic National Committee in 1994—when it was still unusual for women to do that. She and her husband have since donated millions more. She says she was "obsessed" with Hillary from the start. "The work she did over time was so inspirational that it motivated me."

Iscol ticks off the examples—a home instruction program for parents of preschoolers in Arkansas; going door to door in 1973 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the Children's Defense Fund; registering disabled children who were being kept out of the public schools, work that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act; her leadership on global women's rights at the 1995 World Conference on Women, in Beijing. "I thought, I might not be able to do what she can, but I can do what I can."

Those living room sessions paid off. Exit polls showed 60 percent of women voted for Clinton in the 2000 Senate election. It was an unexpected result—she had been polling poorly with white and suburban women throughout the campaign—and big news.

To female politicos, that campaign—mounted by women and aimed at women to elect a woman—represented a new kind of politics, the kind that they'd been seeking for years. "It was a flat organization: You didn't need to go up through any kind of campaign hierarchy," says Ann Lewis, Clinton's Senate campaign senior adviser. "And it was title-less, which is also very different from most campaigns. And third, it was based on mutual communication, with more back and forth, more 'Here's what we think—what do you think?'"

Outgoing New York State Democratic Leader Judith Hope at the Democrats' annual business meeting in New York, Monday, December 3, 2001. Suzanne Plunkett/AP

Purse vs. Wallet

In her runs for the Senate and the presidency, Clinton has needed pallets of money, and she has always managed to rake it in—over the past 20 years, she has collected enough to finance the government of a middle-sized African nation for a few years. Men have been the biggest givers by far, but her 2016 campaign has set a record in female political fundraising: As of June, she had raised a higher percentage of her campaign funds from women than any major party presidential candidate in recent history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And the total amount of money from women is higher for her than for any other candidate this year.

Her female donors cannot approach the wallet wallop of the major financiers of American politics, men like Haim Saban, Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers. But they have one thing in common with those mega-donors: They are single-issue donors. Their goal is to elect more women.

Boston philanthropist Barbara Lee has donated $1.1 million to Clinton's 2016 campaign, making her its third most generous female donor. Back when Hillary was considering her Senate run in New York, Lee was already pouring money into the White House Project, designed to encourage women to run for office. She urged Clinton to run for the Senate and has gone on to donate to all her campaigns.

The appeal to women's purses began in New York. Hope and Lewis and other early Clinton supporters buzzed through the Manhattan and Westchester County living room circuits and slowly coaxed out wealthy New York women who had never before been political donors. "It was unusual for a woman alone to write a check for 50 grand back then," recalls Iscol, who now serves as co-chair of the Ready for Hillary national finance council. Some of the early Hillary donors, like designer Lisa Perry and art collector Ann Tenenbaum, were married to Wall Street millionaires. Others, like retired broker Margo Alexander (one of 24 women in a Harvard Business School class of 800 students in 1970), had made their own fortunes. Perry and Alexander soon joined Iscol as members of Hillary's inner circle and have hosted some of her biggest fundraisers. The motive, again, was Hillary and beyond.

" In 1998, when I first became interested in politics, the breakdown in the Senate was 91 men and nine women," Perry says. "I just didn't understand how it was possible that a large group of men was making very crucial decisions about women's bodies." When she met Clinton in 1998, she was, she says, "completely enamored."

Ellen Malcolm, the political activist who founded Emily's List in 1985 to encourage women to donate more money to elect female candidates, says Clinton's presidential nomination is the culmination of decades of work. "Women went from bake sales to making history in every election cycle," she says. "We are seeing this incredible outpouring of support from women. Many of those people have been doing the most difficult task, which is writing that first political check. They will write more once you get them over that first hurdle."

Buell has spent $15 million on the Clintons and their causes, according to the Los Angeles Times. She says she doesn't want an official job in a Clinton administration but believes Hillary will surround herself with women if elected—something she'd consider another important achievement. "I don't think she will pack the Oval Office with women to make a point," Buell says. "But she knows some great women. I don't want to say she goes out of her way to find women, but she does. I know in my business I'd rather work with women."

'She Knows We've Got Her Back'

A week after the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, four of Hillary Clinton's oldest and closest pals, who along with Clinton are all from the Class of 1965 at a high school in Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed to meet a reporter for lunch at Petro's Restaurant in downtown Chicago. The leader of this pack of lifelong Clinton intimates, Betsy Ebeling, works for the state of Illinois in enforcing LGBT human rights and thus is more involved in politics than the others. As an Illinois delegate to the convention, she was given the job of declaring Illinois's votes, making the nomination of her childhood buddy official.

Ebeling has taken to calling Hillary "Gertie," a nickname they invented after laughing about how former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich mistakenly called Ebeling "Nancy" and told her he thought "your friend"—Hillary—was great. Other high school pals at the lunch were Kathy Burgess, the former airline attendant, who is now a child support collection officer; Bonnie Klehr, an artist and jewelry designer; and businesswoman Ann Drake. Each woman is 70 or about to get there. As girls growing up in the Eisenhower-era utopia of white, suburban Chicago, they scampered in and out of each other's houses, knew each other's mothers and fathers and siblings, and mocked each other's prom dates. Eventually, they attended each other's weddings and parents' funerals.

For years, they have been getting together for a "girls' weekend" at a remote cabin in Indiana one of them owns, and they've grown used to Secret Service agents lurking just beyond the campfire, in the woods. They are planning to convene in New York City with their old pal on election night.

They don't talk politics when they are with "Hill." They do spend a lot of time laughing about silly stuff, like the time their mothers signed them up for piano lessons from a strange neighbor who kept taxidermied Pomeranians—her deceased pets—in a glass case in her house, while her living pet under the piano nipped at the feet of the children. "That was the beginning and the end of our musical education," Ebeling says.

Hillary Clinton arrives to deliver a formal campaign kickoff speech at the Hillary for America Launch Event at Four Freedoms Park at Roosevelt Island in New York City on June 13, 2015. John Angelillo/UPI/Newscom

Throughout Clinton's years in public life, the Park Ridge pals have privately supplied their famous friend with hometown updates and giggles. The State Department's public email dump of tens of thousands of pieces of then-Secretary of State Clinton's private and professional correspondence—obtained via a conservative legal watchdog's lawsuit—includes dozens of emails with Ebeling. She corresponded frequently and casually with Clinton, sending jokes, local news and sometimes intimate praise. ("Hair, jewelry, sweet look. Very natural," read one from January 2013.) Unlike many of the emails from friends and acquaintances, Ebeling's don't include the usual requests for favors, photo ops for third parties, sometimes more. In turn, Clinton sometimes vented with her. When Hasidic Jews in Israel erased her from a photograph published in a newspaper in 2011, she fired off a mention of it to Ebeling, among others, under the heading "Unbelievable."

Although they came of age in the 1960s, their decade was not the psychedelic one represented by rock bands like the Grateful Dead; it was the sock hop and the prom queen mourned in the song "American Pie." They were good girls deeply involved in student government and in decorating the gym for high school dances. They did their homework on time and got good grades, and they all remember Hillary Rodham standing out as the most organized kid in homeroom. She was the one who always asked the teacher to repeat and explain instructions, because she wanted to get it right.

Back then, they say, no one would have predicted that "Hill" would run for president. Their ambitions were muted. Listings for women's jobs were still on a separate page in the classified ads section, and only certain careers were seen as "fitting." "If you hesitated, they sent you to nursing school," says Ebeling. When she was about 22, Burgess was given a book called How to Be Assertive, Not Aggressive. She says she forgot about it until she noticed commenters criticizing Clinton for shouting during a rally earlier this year.

In high school, they didn't sit around plotting to topple the patriarchy. That they would get married was absolutely assumed, but after that, maybe they would work. But by the 1980s, their friend, now the first lady of Arkansas (and a working lawyer), had become a symbol to many in the country—and to them too. She is a presence in their lives in many ways. Burgess named her first-born daughter after Hillary. Klehr sometimes sees necklaces she designed and gave Hillary around the candidate's neck in TV appearances. In return, the high school pals offer unconditional friendship. "She knows we always have her back," says Klehr.

Most of the members of Clinton’s inner circle fought the wars of the second wave of feminism and are baffled that some younger women don’t see her as an icon of the movement. Spencer Platt/Getty

The Love Generation

For her inner circle, Clinton's official nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate this summer was an emotional event. There they were in Philadelphia, wiping away tears and talking about—what else?—love. The word was emblazoned on official merchandise at the convention and uttered in almost every speech. It might have looked like a calculated contrast to the hate-fest the Republicans had put on during their convention in Cleveland, but it reflects something authentically Hillary: Earlier this year, she granted a remarkable interview to a young reporter from BuzzFeed in which she encapsulated her political theme as "I am talking about love and kindness." She admitted that she stopped talking about "that stuff" publicly when she got savaged for calling for such things as "a politics of meaning" early in her tenure as first lady, but she said it remained her theme—in private, with the girls.

"I think that there are life experiences and, you know when I talk about this stuff, I talk about this with my friends, my girlfriends, right?" she told BuzzFeed. "I mean, we have these conversations. We trade quotes. We trade books. We trade ideas. And it's totally normal for us. We've gone through so much together: deaths, divorce, illness and good things like grandchildren. So people in those settings, it's very natural to have these kinds of conversations, right? And it's just not in the public discourse very much—so now whether what I am trying to do will have any impact or not, we will see."

In Philadelphia, temporarily the City of Sisterly Love, some of the girlfriends who trade books with her and talk about "this stuff" reconnected. Some of them have received notes or emails from Hillary with quotes from her favorite poets, including Mary Oliver. Buell says she was certain Clinton "masterminded" the theme of the convention. "She was very open to the love that she wanted to project," Buell says. "I think she made sure that was communicated."

The inner circle is convinced Clinton really is all about love and kindness, and gloss over or ignore things that obsess the detractors: Benghazi, the emails, the Iraq War vote, the Goldman Sachs speeches, the occasional position flip-flops. Their Hillary is devoted to helping women, children and the poor but is also the best of friends—one who never forgets when someone's mom or kid is sick, shows up for weddings and funerals, and invites them inside the White House or even, maybe, to that party with George Clooney.

The queenmakers don't understand why Clinton hasn't ignited the passions of younger women. Like her high school pals, who see the 14-year-old "Hill" when they look at the presidential candidate, her more recently minted friends, sisters in arms from New York, also see the fighter for women and children, the global feminist who has historically linked women's and human rights—and not the woman who has amassed, with her husband, a fortune of $50 million and has been ensconced in the global elite for decades.

Bill and Hillary Clinton share the stage during a visit to her high school in Park Ridge, Illinois on March 11, 1992. Mark Elias/AP

They are baffled that many young women don't realize that Hillary Clinton is a revolutionary. Her circle knows her as a living link to an era of oppression and humiliation, but to younger women—accustomed to outnumbering men in college and to working alongside them, taking for granted access to abortion on demand and, yes, to having a woman run for president—she's just another wealthy, white member of the establishment. But the women inside the Clinton bunker are certain that's wrong and believe this election could be the triumph of feminism's second wave. Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail may look like yet another grandmother in a pantsuit, but they still see her as she was back at Wellesley, fired up and fighting an establishment to which they now all, for better or worse, belong.

At the moment, with her poll numbers nudging higher every time Donald Trump launches another fact-challenged broadside, Clinton's inner circle is warily optimistic. But they expect an ugly three months leading up to Election Day. Says one of them, "You don't overthrow 5,000 years of patriarchy without a fight."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Clinton's inner circle was involved in the first wave of feminism. It was the second wave.