The Ascendance of Elizabeth Warren

Understanding the woman behind the hype.

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle

An ultrasound at eight weeks.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how you feel about Elizabeth Warren. Warren is currently running for Senate in Massachusetts, in the hopes of knocking out Republican incumbent Scott Brown. Very few first-time candidates are so well-known, or so passionately beloved. 

For much of the past decade, Warren has made her name as a left-wing media star, appearing in documentaries and on progressive talk shows to advocate for the middle class against a corrupt financial system. In 2008, she was appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). From that position, she created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), whose goal is to make mortgages and lending transparent, and to uncover predatory practices. Eighty-nine House Democrats petitioned for her to be appointed as the agency’s head.

She didn’t get the job. Obama passed Warren over, nominating and then appointing Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to the post when Congress was in recess in January. Warren’s forthright consumer advocacy was anathema to the banking industry, and reportedly rankled some Obama administration officials, particularly Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Instead of working with powerful banking interests who wanted to weaken the CFPB, Warren called out politicians on both sides of the aisle for their complicity. She proclaimed: My first choice is a strong consumer agency. … My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.” This attitude did not make her popular with co-workers. But it did earn her massive public support. Reading Warren’s press often feels like listening in on the meeting of a strange law-professor-centric fan club. Heaven is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren,” read the headline of a Rebecca Traister piece in The New York Times Magazine. “[A] modern-day Mr. Smith, giving voice to regular citizens astonished at the failure of Washington to protect Main Street,” wrote Suzanna Andrews, in Vanity Fair. At Salon, Steve Kornacki predicted her 2016 presidential candidacy in November 2011, when it was uncertain whether she even had a decent chance of winning the Massachusetts Senate race. For what it’s worth, Kornacki was being conservative; journalist Matt Taibbi (and, apparently, the folks at Eliz​a​beth​War​ren​for​Pres​i​dent​.com) even wanted her to run in 2012.

Her platform in Massachusetts is the same as ever: She argues passionately for increased financial protection for the middle class and for strong governmental oversight and regulation of the economy. And she has a good chance of winning. Warren and Brown have both agreed to eschew campaign ads from Super PACs. This means they have to rely on direct donations – a good indicator of popular support. In the fourth quarter of 2011, Elizabeth Warren raised a reported $5.7 million. Brown raised half that.

And so, we’re faced with an unusual situation. For the first time in memory, Mr. Smith is a girl. Stranger still, no one seems to mind.

A conspicuous absence

Women who enter the political arena in any way, no matter what their actual politics, are almost invariably plunged into public-relations hell. If they’re confident and eloquent, they are portrayed as castrating. If anything less than perfectly articulate, they’re portrayed as ditzes. If people find them attractive, they’re called bimbos. And if not everyone finds them attractive, they’re called frumpy. Their sex lives are scoured for incriminating details; when Christine O’Donnell ran for a Delaware Senate seat, Gawker found someone she’d dated to write about the condition of her pubic hair. And everyone is on the lookout for signs of incipient female hysteria: Tears, anger, or just a case of Bachmann-esque crazy eyes” can do a woman in.

But the flood of sexist scorn to which most women in the political arena are exposed is conspicuously absent when it comes to Warren. Sure, one fellow called her a socialist whore” at a meeting. But for Michelle Obama, that’s just a normal Tuesday. The most noticeably sexist reaction to Warren has been the propensity of male supporters – Jon Stewart among them – to say they’re in love with her. (Or as Stewart put it, less romantically: I want to make out.”) Her female supporters have taken notice. Hilary Gerber, one of several Warren fans I spoke to, made special mention of it.

She showed a mastery of a subject, economics, that is usually thought of as a man’s domain,” Gerber told me. I, perhaps naively, think the backlash against her appointment to head the CFPB was a reaction against Obama more than it was against her.” Gerber noted that even this backlash did not reek of the overt sexism” that has plagued other female politicians.

Even when people do hate Warren – and many do – they tend to stick to the issues. They condemn her ideas, not her gender. Unlike many female candidates, the public has seemingly allowed Warren to succeed or fail on the strength of her work alone.

The question of how Warren has accomplished this is tricky. Her success has much to do with her timing. To be blunt, the economic and political situation is so bad right now that Americans are grateful to anyone who argues for the rights of the middle class against the rights of multi-billion dollar corporations. And Warren is a sharp, convincing arguer. Perhaps we are so desperate for a champion that we no longer care about the champion’s gender. Warren’s intense, consumer-targeted focus on the economy is exactly what people want to hear. If she keeps it up, her gender will remain a secondary concern.

Circuitous career climb

But Warren’s background isn’t irrelevant. Much of her charisma depends on it – her working-class, just-folks upbringing, her story of a mid-life conversion to defending the middle class against economic predators.

Honestly,” one (male) Warren supporter and UMass student wrote for The Massachusetts Daily Collegian in February, I look for the person most like myself. If someone’s walked in my shoes, I’m comfortable that they understand where I’m coming from and that they can be trusted to act in my best interests. It’s why I like Rick Santorum … Never have I seen someone with a more similar backstory to my own than Warren.”

It may seem bizarre for a man to like” both Santorum and Warren, based solely on the fact that he thinks they’re both like himself.” But whether we admit it or not, many of us vote by the same criteria. It’s precisely this everyman quality of Warren’s – her ability to convince the public that she’s just like us,” whoever we” are – that often draws people into her camp. Warren has nurtured this reputation. She’s far from mendacious. But like any politician, she’s played a role in the creation of her image. And the more one examines this image, the more one is struck by how Warren has managed to navigate the questions of what we want from women in power, while seeming to avoid them altogether.

Warren’s backstory” is well-known. She came from a working-class family. Her father was a janitor; her mother stayed at home. When her father had heart trouble, Warren’s mother took a job answering phones. Warren herself took a job as a waitress. Her parents encouraged her to attend college, and she received a debate-team scholarship to George Washington University. But she left that school to marry her high-school boyfriend, who worked in Houston. After graduating from the University of Houston, she taught disabled children in the public school system until she had a child herself and became a stay-at-home mother. She was dissatisfied, and friends convinced her to go into law. After graduating from Rutgers School of Law in 1976, she stayed home with her children, working on wills and real-estate closings from home. But when Rutgers offered her a teaching position – someone didn’t show up to teach a class,” she later explained – she accepted. In 1978, Warren divorced.

In 1979, she did the bankruptcy study that would come to define her career. She visited bankrupt families, to prove,” in her own words, that they were all big cheaters.” What she found was that they’d simply been struck by circumstances beyond their control, such as divorce or severe illness. This obviously resonated with her own life story. And so she devoted her career to fighting on their behalf.

She soon became one of the nation’s foremost experts on bankruptcy. From Rutgers she moved on to the University of Houston, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1995, she accepted a permanent teaching position at Harvard. That was also the year that Warren – then 46 – finally abandoned the Republican Party, and became a Democrat.

This is a classic bootstraps story. But it is also a deeply female story, and one that is emblematic of Warren’s generation – the first generation of middle-class women to fully enter the workforce.

Our popular image of these women looks like Hillary Clinton: ambitious, competitive, feminist and professional to the point of slickness, largely because they had to be in order to survive in an era when a professional woman was considered odd or offensive. But this attitude wasn’t universal. Many women looked a lot like Warren: initially sticking to the traditional plan for women’s lives, but adjusting slowly and inevitably to the new reality, in which they could have meaningful careers after marriage. These women often found (as Warren did) that they were actually talented, in ways that the traditional plan never demanded.

Warren may win Massachusetts. So we're faced with an unusual situation: For the first time in memory, Mr. Smith is a girl. Stranger still, no one seems to mind.

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.

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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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