Clara Goldberg Schiffer was born in Brockton, MA, into a family of poor immigrant eastern European Jews. She attended public schools in Brockton and Roxbury. Her intellectual interest started young.
She was smart. There is an extended family dispute about whether she got her brains from her mother Rebecca or her father Nathan — it was clearly both — and she worked hard. She got into Radcliffe, a great achievement for a poor Jewish girl.