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Elizabeth Warren’s Stealth Feminism

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Illustrations by Jacqui Oakley

Liza Mundy is a senior fellow at New America and author, most recently, ofCode Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.

In the early 1980s, the University of Texas law school boasted a good-sized faculty of some 60 professors, only a handful of whom were women. At a time when the legal teaching field was egregiously male-dominated, Texas was no exception; yearbooks from the era show an array of grave-looking older male faculty members in sober suits and horn-rimmed eyeglasses; a sprinkling of flashier young guys with mustaches and long hair; and the occasional female hairbob few and far between. “You could start a law school with all the women Texas turned down, and it would be so stellar, you couldn’t believe it,” recalls Patricia Cain, who in 1974 had become the first tenure-track woman hired.

In the years after Cain broke the hiring barrier, she watched intently as a half-dozen or so women came on. She pushed for more, but the boys’ club was alive and well. Then, in 1981, the school agreed to try out a dynamic young woman named Elizabeth Warren.

On the face of it, Warren and Cain had surprisingly little in common. Cain was a classic boundary-breaker of the era: a liberal, a lesbian and an unabashed feminist. Even now, nearly 50 years later, she still has her copy of the inaugural issue ofMs. Magazine. Warren was a product of the tradition-minded Midwest, a mother of two and the kind of mainstream woman-in-a-man’s-world who didn’t make feminism a “thing,” as Cain puts it. Perhaps because of this, when Warren first came to the University of Texas as a visiting professor—the tryout role for potential hires—their paths didn’t much cross. A movement was coalescing called “feminist legal theory,” which held that the law, rather than being an instrument of justice, historically was a weapon used to consign women to subordinate status, and Cain gravitated toward another visiting professor who was advancing that theory. Of Warren, she recalls: “She just wasn’t in a position to kind of coalesce with the feminist side of the aisle,” though, “I think she was evolving.”

Cain and Warren did, eventually, forge a connection. In 1983, Warren came to Texas as a full-time faculty member, and they bonded over logistics—and love. Cain was in a relationship with a law professor at the University of California, Davis, while Warren was married to Bruce Mann, a legal historian teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. “I had the same kind of commuting relationship she had with Bruce. We kind of shared that misery together,” Cain says. She was impressed by how supportive Mann was of Warren’s career. She also admired Warren for volunteering to teach bankruptcy law, a complex topic that was—and remains—a very male domain. “I thought that was very brave of her,” Cain says.

During these conversations, moreover, there were signs that Warren was paying closer attention than it might appear to gender inequities in their field. “She had thought about it—how we were being treated by this institution,” Cain remembers. Warren’s view was that their male peers, struggling to learn how to deal with women as colleagues and equals, coped by assigning them familiar female roles. Cain recalls Warren venturing that one of the other female professors “more fit into the mother image—they sort of knew how to deal with her, because they all had mothers.” She felt the men found Cain harder to peg. And Warren? “She described herself,” Cain says, “as probably the kid sister.”

It could have been an offhand remark, but as the 2020 race unfolds, with Warren as the leading female candidate, the question of just how a woman should pursue an office that has only been occupied by a man has swirled around her. It is a tough truth that full-throated feminism could help Warren in the Democratic primary but hurt her in the general election. And although she might strike voters as similar to Hillary Clinton—a fellow lawyer who came of age in the same era, policy-driven and hyperprepared—Warren’s approach to feminism, and to what it means to run as a woman in 2019, is harder to define. But her history in Texas and afterward offers clues.

Warren, who was born in 1949,wasa kid sister growing up in post-war Oklahoma. “She has three older brothers, which is significant,” says her friend Elizabeth Vale, who worked with Warren at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency Warren launched after the financial crisis. That Warren, during her formative years, was obliged to play in what we might call male spaces, is—Vale speculates—part of the key to who she became. Rather than build a feminist critique of the power structure or set about dismantling the patriarchy by taking on sex discrimination cases, Warren chose to enter male fields and compete toe-to-toe.

Another Texas colleague, Jay Westbrook, uses the phrase “tomboy” to describe her: the kind of scrappy, two-fisted girl who enjoys competing with the boys, loath to complain about getting scratched and scraped in the fray. By adopting this approach, Warren has lived a compelling story of confronting and surmounting just about every impediment the past seven decades have presented to high-achieving women—but it’s a story that could seem to have unfolded in a world parallel to, and apart from, the organized feminist movement. For much of her career, she has not been a vocal champion of women’s rights, her rhetoric more muted than candidates like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand or Hillary Clinton. “I don’t think she has a specific gender lens,” Vale says.

More recently, though, a new Warren has emerged. In a statement toPolitico Magazine, Warren said that while the financial and economic topics she focuses on aren’t always talked about as “women’s issues,” when she ran for the Senate in 2012, she detected “a renewed focus on reproductive rights and violence against women” and “felt a new sense of energy among women I met on the campaign trail.” And as one of only two viable women candidates remaining in the Democratic presidential primary field, she invokes gender—its advantages and outrages—with increasing fierceness. When the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, accused her earlier this fall of having an “angry, unyielding viewpoint,” Warren fired off a fundraising email saying, “Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.” She has a ritual slogan for girls who come to her events: “Running for president—that’s what girls do,” she says, coaxing them to “pinky swear” that they’ll take this idea to heart. Her campaign website offers a line of feminist merchandise, including “That’s What Girls Do” T-shirts and a “Pinky Promise” baby onesie. She has vowed to wear a Planned Parenthood scarf to her inauguration and, alluding to fighting climate change, said, “I will do everything—oh, I love saying this—a president can do all byherself.”

Warren also has started appealing to groups that identify around gender, with three key speeches evoking the advocacy of 19th- and 20th-century working-class women—seamstresses, garment workers and laundresses. And she has begun talking more about hardships she encountered in her own career, such as the harassment she suffered as a young professor at the University of Houston law school, where a more senior male colleague relentlessly made dirty jokes and commented on her looks, then invited her to his office where, she told NBC, he “slammed the door and lunged for me.”

That she is amping up the feminist volume might be because she feels freer, even obliged, to do so in a post-#MeToo era. Part of it, too, is surely because she must distinguish herself from her male rivals in a competitive primary. But maybe Warren’s enhanced outspokenness is not quite the pivot it seems. Without saying so, Warren long has practiced a kind of stealth feminism, gravitating toward the epicenter of male power in order to attack it from within. As both a law professor and a politician, her key targets—banks, billionaires and Big Tech—represent the chief remaining bastions of male privilege and wealth, while fields like law and medicine have been thoroughly feminized. Warren’s signature issue—a “wealth tax”—would fall harder on men, insofar as there are more male billionaires than female ones. If “angry” is the code word lobbed at powerful women, Warren deploys “billionaire” as code for powerful men.

When one of those billionaires, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entered the presidential race just as California Senator Kamala Harris was dropping out, Warren’s campaign fired off another email pointing out that two women senators “have been forced out of this race, while billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg have been allowed to buy their way in.” She reiterated the point in a thread of tweets on December 6, vowing to carry on Gillibrand’s work on paid leave and Harris’ on reproductive rights.

As Warren’s surge in the polls fades, she faces an existential moment. She remains one of the top four Democratic candidates, and the only woman among them; Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has been stuck in the single digits. Klobuchar has permitted herself to blame her own standing at least in part on sexism, noting, “Women are held to a higher standard.” Which is true, but not entirely: There are new and very real advantages to being a female candidate in America today. Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate the extent to which female authority figures trigger hostility in sectors of the electorate. And women themselves are hardly monolithic; when Warren tweeted about billionaires, there materialized a thread of responses accusing her of pandering—presumably, to female voters—and others accusing her of not pandering enough. As she attempts to find her voice on women’s rights, Warren seems to be defining feminism as confronting the male ruling class, especially its economic entitlement, head-on, but not always in an explicitly gendered way. And she is showing how that is done.

‘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 bookThe 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 theHarvard 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.’”

‘She is being much more authentically herself’


Warren became a much more public feminist symbol inadvertently in 2017—when, as the first female U.S. senator from Massachusetts, she was speaking during the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shushed her. Or rather, tried to. The senator from Massachusetts would not be shushed, much to McConnell’s dismay and disdain. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” he fussed. With that memorable phrase, a thousand hashtags bloomed. “She really became this icon for women and women’s empowerment,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

When Warren entered the presidential race—at the outset one of six female Democratic primary contenders—it was Gillibrand who worked to present herself as a feminist first and foremost. In some ways, this was because all the candidates were jostling to differentiate themselves, with Harris presenting more as a candidate of color, Klobuchar as a champion of bipartisanship and Warren as a generator of a zillion policy proposals, including on child care, abortion rights and maternal mortality. With Gillibrand and Harris now out of the race, it can be expected that Warren and Klobuchar will increasingly speak about women’s issues. When Klobuchar complained about women being held to a higher standard, for example, she was alluding to scholarship suggesting female politicians must prove their competence and likability, a burden that doesn’t fall on, say, Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg. Warren, so far, seems to be skirting the more negative aspects of gender: At an African American women’s event in Houston this past spring, she spoke powerfully about her life story, but, asked point-blank whether women face greater problems getting elected, Warren delivered a comic side-eye and then started talking about her mother and how you fight for people you love.

At the same time, “she is being much more authentically herself than we have seen,” Walsh says. Not that long ago, female candidates were told to downplay their roles as wives and mothers and—essentially—run as men. In the run-up to her 2008 presidential campaign, consultant Mark Penn warned Hillary Clinton that the country wasn’t ready for “someone who would be the first mama,” but that voters were “open to the first father being a woman.” His approach was to urge Clinton to, in effect, “quote-unquote neutralize” gender, says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics. So that’s how Clinton ran the first time: “She would clearly say, I’m not running as a woman, almost to the point where you saw voters get frustrated with it, particularly woman voters,” Dittmar says. By 2016, Clinton felt freer to campaign as a woman, though she encountered starkly sexist moments, as when Donald Trump stalked behind her on the debate stage.

By the 2018 midterm cycle, a new crop of female candidates were able to bring their whole selves to their races, touting their careers—as fighter pilots, military officers, spies—and their roles as daughters and mothers. Moreover, in the post #MeToo era, talking about the discrimination and harassment they overcame is a way for women to prove they are tough. A recent analysis by the Barbara Lee Foundation said voters respond well when women run as “360 degree candidates,” showcasing their full range of life experience and touting their expertise while also “embracing family.”

Not to mention that Democratic voters are becoming more female. Women cast 60 percent of Democratic votes in the 2018 midterm elections, and the gender gap between the parties has widened in the past several years. Over that time, the Republican Party has tacked in an antifeminist direction (remember Todd Akin and “legitimate rape?” Virginia Republicans and “transvaginal ultrasound?”) culminating in the election of a president against whom a number of women have charged sexual harassment or assault. As a result, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says, “Post-2016, there is a strong desire by Democratic women to vote for women candidates.” Rather than the feminization of the Democratic Party, Greenberg calls it the “feministing of the party.” That is to say, it’s not just that the party is increasingly female; it’s increasingly feminist.

The problem is, studies also show that gender remains, as ever, polarizing, and that “hostile sexism,” which is to say, antipathy toward feminism, is one impulse that drove conservative voters to vote for Trump, for whom a majority of white women cast ballots. Studies also show that voters have a harder time voting women into executive leadership; there are more women than ever in Congress but only nine serving as governors. And, this fall, aNew York Timespoll of voters in battleground states found that 41 percent of voters who supported Biden but not Warren said they see most of the women running for president as unlikable. “I wish she’d say less about fighting,” worries Westbrook, her old colleague.

If Warren makes it past the hurdles in her own party, there remains Trump, the most “gendered” opponent imaginable. Warren in the past has needled his masculinity, tweeting during the 2016 campaign that he and future Vice President Mike Pence were “small, insecure, weak men,” and calling Trump “a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.” Were Warren to win the nomination, she might be better situated to call out Trump for sexism than Hillary Clinton was because she doesn’t have the baggage of being married to Bill Clinton. “I think she can hit a lot harder,” says Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.

Whether taking on the boy’s club will help or hurt her, it’s indisputable that Warren has been training all her life to challenge the purported billionaire man currently occupying the White House. The presidency is the ultimate male-dominated field—just the kind of arena Warren has spent her career trying to crack into—and the 2020 contest will put her now-not-so-stealth feminism to the test. If Trump were to stalk behind Warren during a debate, says Walsh, “I would expect a level of fearlessness from her. She is not going to be cautious with him.”

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