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The Ascendance of Elizabeth Warren (cont’d)

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Family-first feminist?

Most of Warren’s goals in her early life were stereotypically feminine. Warren has framed her mother’s choice to work as one of necessity, although her mother did in fact keep working after her father recovered from his illness and found another job, reflecting the pre-feminist belief that, for a woman, the best proof of success or status was finding a solid middle-class husband who could pay for her to stay home. Warren was not only a high-school debate champion, but the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award winner. She attended college, but stayed at home with her first child for a few years. When she chose to work, she chose acceptable female professions. She was a waitress; she was a schoolteacher. She fed people and took care of children, as girls were meant to do. Even after graduating law school, she worked from home, doing odd jobs, so that she could take care of the kids. Throughout her twenties, her intellect and talent were largely subsumed in the duties of marriage, homemaking and motherhood.

The date of Warren’s famous bankruptcy study is significant; it happened the year after her divorce. In a way, it wasn’t just that bankruptcy study that made her who she is today. It was divorcing a husband who argued that she’d be content staying at home.

In a talk she given 2007 at the University of California, Berkeley, Warren described her early career:

I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me.’ I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years, and I was really casting about, thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ My husband’s view of it was, ‘Stay home. We have children, we’ll have more children, you’ll love this.’ And I was very restless about it.

When Warren entered law school, she says:

I took to law school like a pig takes to mud. I mean, this was fabulous. I loved law school. And then my … final year in law school I got pregnant again and I didn’t take a job. Alex was born about three weeks after I graduated and it was the hardest moment in my life, because I thought this world that had opened up to me, this world of ideas, and law was a tool, you could make things happen with it – I thought, because I didn’t take a job right out of law school, it was all over.

This, in many ways, was the fundamental promise of second-wave feminism: that the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow could become the Economic Champion of Today, and perhaps the First Female President in American History. Warren herself is living proof that feminism’s basic claims – that female ambition and intellect exist and should be recognized and nurtured, and that women can contribute more to society in jobs than out of them – are correct.

Warren herself, however, has refrained from stressing this connection too much. If you’re wondering how Warren has reconciled her highly traditional, domestic early goals with her highly progressive, public career, well, in some ways she hasn’t.

“[Warren] didn’t exactly advocate women leaving the workforce,” says Beth Wilde, a Warren supporter in Watertown, Mass., “but she sidled up to the notion and gave it a knowing glance.”

Wilde stressed her admiration for Warren’s courage and logic and her ability to make it as a working-class woman in a privileged, male-dominated field. But her ambivalence is reasonable. Warren is an accomplished woman and a true progressive. She just happens to have made some bizarrely conservative statements about women.

Some of them can be found in The Two-Income Trap, a 2003 book Warren co-wrote with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, which states that the pre-feminist middle-class arrangement – in which men were the sole earners, and women were stay-at-home parents – was better for families. It openly blames feminists for pushing women into the workforce in large numbers, which they claim has had disastrous economic consequences. “Any suggestion that the family might be better off with Mother staying at home was discounted as reactionary chauvinism.” And: “Feminists assumed that women’s entry into the workforce entailed no real costs – only benefits.”“When her husband was working steadily, [a stay-at-home mother] would forgo a paycheck to spend her days at home, taking care of the children,” they write in The Two-Income Trap, “but if circumstances changed, so did she. If her husband was laid off, fired, or otherwise left without a paycheck, the stay-at-home mother didn’t simply stand helplessly on the sidelines as her family toppled over an economic cliff; she looked for a job to make up some of that lost income. Similarly, if her husband had a heart attack and was expected to stay home for a while, she could find work and add a new income source to keep the family afloat financially. A stay-at-home mother served as the family’s ultimate insurance against unemployment or disability.”

This idea of women as “insurance” for men and children – that stay-at-home motherhood was preferable because wives could get jobs if their husbands lost them, thus providing families with a back-up income – is central to The Two-Income Trap. “A mother who has gone into the workplace brings home a paycheck, but she forfeits the economic value of her backup role,” they write. Warren and Tyagi stress that women who “want to work” should be able to, and acknowledge that the rising cost of living has made employment mandatory for most women.

But their homemaker-as-insurance thesis could also be fodder for social conservatives who oppose women’s careers for more blatantly sexist reasons. Eventually, the book allows for the fact that a stay-at-home parent could be either gender – or, heck, that both parents could work, and just save half their money. But by that time, you’ve heard so many elegies and odes to stay-at-home motherhood that it’s hard to absorb. Although Warren and Tyagi never fall into overt anti-feminism, the book definitely allows one to reach some distinctly anti-feminist conclusions.

The Two-Income Trap won Warren some rare conservative admiration. “You can euphemize this account any way you like – and God knows Warren tries – but Michele Bachmann would find nothing to object to in this narrative,” writes Christopher Caldwell – approvingly! – in The Weekly Standard. “It is a straightforward telling of the Tragedy of Feminism, tinged with populism.”

Sadly, he’s correct. Warren is not a bad candidate for women; she’s endorsed by the feminist group EMILY’S List, has gone toe-to-toe with Scott Brown to defend women’s access to contraception, supports abortion rights, and has a solid position on LGBT issues to boot. But it’s disheartening for Warren, who “loved law school” and was “restless” and heartbroken at the thought of being a stay-at-home mother, to promote nostalgia for an era in which women like her could not exist.

But then, Warren is no stranger to nostalgia. Her portrait of “the stay-at-home mother” is really a portrait of her mother, right down to the bit about the heart attack. Even Warren’s framing of her crusade rests on some fairly traditional imagery. The word “families” may be the most important term in her vocabulary; it seems to be her default way of describing voters. And in an era when Hillary Clinton and even Sarah Palin have spoken freely of “glass ceilings,” Warren describes herself in domestic terms.

“The word’s out: I’m a woman,” she told The Daily Beast, “and I’m going to have trouble backing off on that. I am what I am. I’ll go out and talk to people about what’s happening to their families, and when I do that, I’m a mother. I’m a grandmother.”

Families, mother, grandmother. Warren is also a woman who’s succeeded in a male-dominated field, a working-class woman who’s managed to become one of the most respected intellectuals in the country, and a woman who reportedly lost a job she was uniquely qualified for because she annoyed her male White House colleagues. But, given the deep-seated and widespread distrust of women in politics – Massachusetts has never elected a female senator – stressing her connection to home and children may simply be safer than acknowledging how important her story really is.

Exceptional, but no aberration

No, Elizabeth Warren is not a messiah. She is not heaven, she is not a prophet, she is not Jimmy Stewart. She may even believe some things that you disagree with; I, personally, was moved to throw The Two-Income Trap across the room. But believe me, it’s better to acknowledge this now; the last time progressives appointed a messiah, it was Obama, and that hype cycle resulted in a wave of hair-tearing post-election disillusionment. That’s just what hype cycles do. The truth is far more interesting than hype: Warren’s an intensely intelligent, complicated, sometimes contradictory woman, with a lot of good points to make about how America should take care of its citizens. She’s managed to command a kind of respect and admiration that is rare for female candidates, and for women generally, and to succeed at a fundamentally feminist project. And she has done it in part by distancing herself from feminism.

This isn’t surprising. Warren is the “people’s champion,” after all. But in a sexist culture, “people” still means “men.” In order to be accepted as the voice of Americans, she needs to draw the voter’s eye away from the fact that she belongs to a specific, marginalized slice of America. (This might be the same reason that she routinely refers to her blue-collar family as “middle-class.”) A woman candidate is not necessarily a women’s candidate. Warren happens to be both, for the most part. But that’s not the story she needs to tell, if she wants to win. Let not the hype cloud our vision, and let not doubt distract us: Warren is a very worthy candidate, and if we are going to choose a new Mr. Smith, she’s a good choice. But she’s not an aberration. Every woman in the political arena deserves the chances afforded her: The chance to succeed or fail based on her work and not on her gender, the chance to be taken seriously as a voice for “people” rather than dismissed as a mere female voice. In fact, every woman deserves this. If enough of us get it, we might not even have to soft-pedal our gender when we want to get things done.

Elizabeth Warren is exceptional. But it would be a shame if the public support for her turned out to be an exception.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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