Telling Elizabeth Warren’s Story

Antonia Felix
Antonia Felix (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Writing the first biography of Senator Elizabeth Warren gave me the opportunity to speak to dozens of people who have known her throughout her life, and, as usual, to immerse myself in subjects I would not likely pursue otherwise. This has been the case with each of my biographies, making this type of writing a gratifying and fulfilling part of my career — a career I had not expected. 

My writing life began in earnest in New York City, where my husband and I moved shortly after we got married in Minneapolis. We both set out to develop our careers in opera, and my day job in publishing gradually pulled me onto a parallel path of creativity. A packager, who sells completed book projects to publishers, landed me my first book deal, and surprise — they kept coming. 

Writing “Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.” took me on a deep dive into Oklahoma history, legal education, discriminatory practices against women in the law, the causes of the Great Recession, intricacies of the bank bailout, class issues in the Ivy Leagues, racist practices in American banking, bankruptcy law, Massachusetts politics, D.C. politics, and the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow program. I engaged with a fascinating network of Warren’s friends, colleagues, students, and staffers. I was honored to meet with recently retired Senator Harry Reid and conduct a lively phone interview with Senator Barbara Mikulski, the grand dame of Senate women, who retired from the Senate last year and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. 

What I Learned About Elizabeth Warren

Warren understood what it means to persist at the tender age of seven. In second grade, when she was “Betsy” Herring, she declared a desire to become a teacher. This was the 1950s, and resistance to plans for becoming a “working woman” came from Warren’s own mother, Pauline — who feared that her daughter would never find a man who would marry her if she insisted on working. They fought over the issue throughout Warren’s teenage years. 

Nevertheless, Warren went on to college, without her mother’s encouragement. After two years at Georgetown University, which she attended on a full scholarship for her debating skills, Warren switched sides. She dropped out of college to marry her hometown boyfriend. For a time, she settled in as a wife and mother, but her dream of doing something else persisted, and she eventually returned to college. 

Warren’s response to the shifting attitudes of the 1960s, and the women’s movement of the 1970s, was not as a demonstrator, but to live out new opportunities for women as a law student. She attended Rutgers in the mid-1970s — arguably the most liberal (and least expensive) law school in the country. She graduated, pregnant with her second child. 

Few women lawyers were getting hired in those days. With no job prospects, she did part-time law work out of her house, until one of her former professors helped her get a teaching job at Rutgers Law night school. From there, Warren’s teaching career took off, with positions at law schools of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Texas, University of Houston, and Harvard.

Along the way she became one of the top bankruptcy scholars in the country and brought that expertise, as well as knowledge of middle-class finances, to the general public by co-writing books with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. 

Washington leaders recognized Warren’s prominence in the field and brought her to a special bankruptcy commission. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, she was hired to direct the panel that conducted oversight of the bank bailouts. Before running for U.S. Senator from Massachusetts in 2011, Warren created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the first agency of its kind to protect consumers from fraudulent banking, loan servicing, and other industry practices. 

I believe one of Warren’s most significant accomplishments as a U.S. Senator has been calling out Wall Street banks like Wells Fargo for their illegal practices. As a member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs, she participated in hearings that forced then-Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf to explain the bank’s fake accounts scandal in 2016. Leadership decisions led to thousands of workers being fired, yet held no executives accountable. Those televised hearings allowed the public to get a sense that at least one leader in Washington understood public anger about the financial crisis and how it had crushed the middle class. 

I was surprised to learn that Warren had not been a card-carrying Democrat her entire adult life, but had at times been registered as a Republican and Independent. The story of her political evolution says a great deal about Warren’s willingness to integrate what she learns into the development of her worldview. 

At the beginning of her career as a bankruptcy scholar, Warren bought in to the prevailing attitude that people who went bankrupt did so because of their personal failings or desire to cheat the system. 

When she learned that bankruptcies are filed by home-owning, hard-working, middle-class Americans who get hit by job loss, serious illness, or some other crisis, she began to see cracks in not only the common assumptions about bankruptcy, but also the free market system itself. For her, that changed everything. 

Patterns in Strong Women

In writing biographies of Elizabeth Warren, Sonia Sotomayor, Condoleezza Rice, and Christie Todd Whitman, as well as the essays in photo-celebration books about Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I have found patterns that give insights about how powerful, everyday women become that way. One common thread involves the discouragement they faced as women and, in three cases, as women of color. 

Rice was told by a high school counselor in a largely white school that she was not college material, but went on to become a professor and U.S. Secretary of State. 

Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx and, after graduating as valedictorian of her high school, realized how far behind she was academically when she got to Princeton. She worked hard and won the school’s top academic award at graduation. She regularly faced down racism, including while serving as a federal district judge in New York. There she was routinely “lectured” by white male lawyers about how to run her courtroom. 

Warren was the victim of sexual harassment by a fellow professor at Houston Law, an episode she shared as part of the #MeToo movement. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s childhood experience with anti-Semitism, and her struggle to find work after graduating at the top of her class from Columbia University Law School in 1959, is fast becoming public knowledge. 

Writing about women in power makes me appreciate the resilience of all women who pursue their goals in a society where sexist attitudes pervade our families, schools, workplaces, and institutions. Women of color endure the graver challenges that come with the intersectionality of race and gender — and the burden of a history of oppression that white men and women will never understand. As a writer who tells stories of women who overcome odds on the way to the top — and once they get there — I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring these realities to light and perhaps inspire readers to dream, stand tall,. . . and persist.

Details: antoniafelix.com

BookShelf Recommendations

“Minnesota Women in Politics,” by Billie Young & Nancy Ankeny, features biographies of many pioneering politicians

“Gentle Warriors: Clara Ueland and the Minnesota Struggle for Suffrage,” by Barbara Stuhler

“Stand Up: The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition,” by Rhoda R. Gilman, who ran forLieutenant Governor as founding member of the Green Party. She died May 9, 2018, at age 91.

“Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.” by Antonia Felix