Born in Geelong, Victoria, Clendinnen graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1955 with a BA (Hons). She sporadically held the post of Senior Tutor of History there from 1955 to 1968, was a Lecturer at La Trobe University from 1969 to 1982, and was then a Senior Lecturer in History until 1989. Forced to curtail her academic activities due to contracting hepatitis, Clendinnen retained an association with La Trobe University while working on her memoir, Tiger's Eye.
In 1999, she was invited to present the 40th annual Boyer Lectures. Her lectures were published in 2000 as True Stories.
For service to scholarship as a writer and historian addressing issues of fundamental concern to Australian society and for contributing to shaping public debate on conflicting contemporary issues.Clendinnen's AO award was noted and a motion paying tribute to her contributions was passed, in the proceedings of the New South Wales State Government's Upper House.