‘Her brand of feminism then was to … look at the data’
Not everybody saw Elizabeth Warren, early on, as standing apart from the organized women’s movement. To some of her male colleagues, she seemed plenty feminist, especially given the culture against which she was contending. “It wasn’t so much that she sat around talking all the time about what will we do with women’s issues, but whenever it came up, in terms of her life and hiring women, she was very strong and vocal,” says her University of Texas colleague Jay Westbrook. “She was also someone who didn’t become Janie-one-note on that score, as a fair number of women—understandably at that time—did.” Westbrook adds, “My not necessarily advanced colleagues—they respected that.”
In some ways, even this degree of restraint is astonishing, given the sexism Warren faced coming of age before the feminist movement had begun to illuminate a path for smart, ambitious women. Warren’s own early traditionalism can doubtless be traced to her mother, who—as Warren recalls in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance—warned her daughter not to become “one of those crazy women’s libbers.” Instead, she wanted “Betsy” to marry a good provider, a goal that reflected the family’s own acute economic insecurity. As she often recounts, Warren’s coming-of-age moment—and core life trauma—happened when she saw her distraught mother wiggle into a too-small dress in order to apply for a job answering phones at Sears, after her father had a heart attack and lost his job, creating deep financial stress of which she was all too aware.
But at a time when discrimination was so rife, and so legal, that some high schools wouldn’t let a girl run for student council president, Warren won a spot as anchor on her high school debate team, where, she writes, she learned that “I could fight—not with my fists, but with my words.” When she won a debating scholarship to George Washington University, Warren remembers being warned, “It was harder for a woman with a college education to find a husband.” She struggled to escape that mindset, at first unsuccessfully: At 19, she left college to come back home and marry her high school boyfriend, Jim Warren. She resumed her undergraduate work in Houston; then, when her new husband’s work took them to New Jersey, started working in a public school. But once she became pregnant, she wrote, she was not asked back. While some news outlets have pushed back against her account of pregnancy discrimination, it is all too believable in an era when this was laughably routine.
A mother now, she tried to resign herself to a life of house-wifery, but there was a different Elizabeth Warren screaming to emerge. “The women’s movement was exploding around the country, but not in our quiet New Jersey suburb and certainly not in our little family,” she writes. “I wanted to be a good wife and mother, but I wanted to do something more.” Her husband agreed she could enter law school at Rutgers. Upon graduation, she says, law firms looked askance at the fact that she was pregnant with their second child, but she found her way into teaching legal writing, first in New Jersey, then back in Texas after her husband was transferred again. But Jim Warren resented her nondomesticity—she was a terrible cook—and the time she spent grading papers. Child care was a nightmare until her Aunt Bee arrived, but that didn’t fix the underlying problem. Warren asked him whether he wanted a divorce, and he said yes. Fighting her way out of a constrictive marriage was a first step in self-transformation; at a legal conference, she fell in love with Bruce Mann, who was light years ahead of his time in his willingness to commute when Warren got a permanent teaching job at UT.
In Texas, Warren set about building a name for herself as a woman in a man’s field—commercial law—where, perhaps without knowing it, she brought a distinctively female viewpoint. “I headed straight for the money courses,” she wrote. Up to then, bankruptcy law tended to focus on the perspectives of banks and corporations; the prevailing view was that Americans who declared bankruptcy were deadbeats and lavish spenders. But along with Westbrook and sociologist Teresa Sullivan, Warren examined court records and found that—contrary to stereotype—most Americans declaring bankruptcy were middle-class citizens set back by a medical bill, job loss or other financial disaster. Not only that, but Warren would later observe that women suffer more severely from restrictive bankruptcy rules and regulations due to their greater economic vulnerability, related to pay inequities, single parenthood and child care responsibilities. In her book The Two-Income Trap, published in 2003 with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, Warren pointed out that mothers and fathers alike were affected by drastic changes in the American economy, but “it is mothers who have been the special targets of change.” Women had entered the work force en masse, retained responsibility for most housework and still had to “preserve the remnants of family in the aftermath of divorce.”
Although she was calling attention to women’s unique financial plight, it’s fair to say that Warren did much of her work outside the feminist movement. At the University of Pennsylvania—where she relocated in 1987, when the school hired her and Mann as a couple—and elsewhere, feminist scholars were endeavoring to make the culture of legal education more hospitable to women and students of color. The 1990s were “a vibrant time,” recalls one of Warren’s students, Melissa Jacoby, in part because female students were now pouring in. One target was the storied Socratic classroom method, which—to oversimplify—consists of calling on students in a formal, intimidating atmosphere, often to expose how much they do not yet know. Warren, recalls Jacoby, took a different approach: She employed a tough questioning style, but worked to make sure everybody in the class was called on, often more than once, approaching class discussions like an orchestra conductor. “It was honestly one of the most empowering classrooms I’ve ever been in. … It really does equalize voices in a law school classroom,” Jacoby says. “It was a very lively and electric class,” adds Charles Fried, who served as Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general and was Warren’s colleague in her next job, at Harvard.
A number of women students followed Warren into commercial and bankruptcy law, without having started with that in mind. “I spent a lot of time with her as a student,” recalls Abbye Atkinson, who studied with Warren at Harvard and worked as an assistant on what by now had become a long-running bankruptcy research project; Atkinson now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, looking at the impact of debt and credit on the economically disenfranchised. “Her brand of feminism then was to really look on the ground, look at the data, look at how debt was affecting Americans generally. How women fared,” Atkinson says.
In 2002, when Warren was asked to contribute an article for the 25th anniversary of the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, she wrote an essay making what had become a central argument and insight: Bankruptcy and related issues—debt, credit, mortgages, payday and student loans—should be seen as women’s issues. The term should not just be reserved for matters involving women’s bodies or family-related topics. In her essay, Warren called out Senator Joe Biden, who, she argued, was carrying water for “the CEOs of the credit industry,” which was headquartered in his home state of Delaware, by backing a bill that would make it harder for people to seek bankruptcy relief. She took aim at Biden’s claims to be a strong voice on behalf of women, as evidenced by his championing of the Violence Against Women Act: “He is simply the most visible example of legislators who daily weigh the effect of proposed legislation on women and on other interest groups, deciding when to stand up for women and when to take a pass,” she wrote tartly. And she argued that the group most likely to be adversely affected by the proposed new law were “women, particularly women heads of households supporting children.”
She also criticized the way some feminists had ignored this demographic. “The women who are struggling the hardest to maintain some semblance of middle-class lives for themselves and their children are not always on the agenda of their most politically active sisters.” Unspoken here is that the feminist movement often was largely upper-middle class, a failing that has been called out many times. Warren’s feminism was, in a way, radical for being more economically inclusive.
She brought these ideas with her into politics. In her statement, Warren said: “In 2012, I focused my Senate campaign on middle-class economic security and crumbling infrastructure. Those are issues that profoundly—and sometimes disproportionately—affect women. But no one called them ‘women’s issues.’”