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EXCERPT: Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life., by Antonia Felix

You may know Senator Elizabeth Warren as a leading politician in the Democratic Party and an advocate for middle class reform, but she’s so much more than that.

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Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.

By Antonia Felix

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.

By Antonia Felix

“Law is an advanced degree in thinking.”

—Elizabeth Warren(1)

Students who do well in debate often think about careers in international studies, politics, or law. Liz was not interested in any of those but instead still dreamed of teaching and majored in education when she got to Washington, DC. Her debate scholarship covered room, board, tuition, books, and spending money. “It was sort of the equivalent of an athletic scholarship,” she said, “but one that actually a girl could get, even though there weren’t very many girls in debate, either.”(2)

George Washington University had one of the handful of elite debate programs that produced championship teams year after year. They debated archrivals like Georgetown and Dartmouth as well as teams across the country, competing in weekend-long tournaments that, over the course of the semester, required as much preparation as several classes combined.(3) The GW coach, George F. Henigan, was among the founders of the American Forensic Association and “one of the debate gods,” said Bill Toutant, a member of the team with Liz. “George Washington University was a very big debate school, a rigorous program,” he said. “They would not send you out on a tournament unless you had a good chance.”(4) 

George Henigan’s son, Dennis, debated in high school and grew up idolizing his father’s debaters. After weekend tournaments, they would come to the Henigans’ house in a Virginia suburb, laden down with trophies. “It was a Sunday night ritual,” Dennis said. “They would review the judges’ comments in our living room, praising some judges and condemning others like baseball players complaining about umpires.”(5) 

Being selected for the university’s prestigious debate scholarship marked Liz as an exceptional talent among a lot of very smart young men and women. The team included, for example, Andrew Mason, her friend from high school who would become an internationally renowned economist and professor at the University of Hawaii.(6) Her debate partner, Greg Millard, the only black student on the team and an American studies major, became a Peabody Award–winning documentary writer, poet, playwright, and cultural affairs commissioner in New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s administration before dying from a long illness at age thirty-seven.(7)  

elizbaeth warren
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren questions Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf at Banking Committee Hearing.

  • Photo Credit: YouTube

Washington, DC, was the ideal place for researching the debate topic Liz’s freshman year: “RESOLVED: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments.”(8) Debaters were easy to spot on campus, carrying around their long, gray metal boxes full of index cards. During practice in the afternoons, they took to the floor one by one to immediately respond to arguments thrown at them. “Then,” Bill Toutant said, “when you were in actual debate, the thirty to forty seconds you had to respond seemed like a luxury.”(9) Bill, who won the Top Novice Debater Award his first year, later became a composer, professor of music theory and composition, and dean at California State University, Northridge. 

The debaters had a brilliant rhetoric teacher and mentor in coach George Henigan, and he was deeply admired. “They could tell that he cared so much about them as people,” Dennis Henigan said. “In the days when there was a lot of student activism, he was very liberal and sympathetic to the antiwar movement, but he expressed a lot of concern about the more radical students, worrying that they might get arrested and in trouble.” Dennis, an attorney, was a champion debater in high school and has spent most of his career at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Reflecting on the U.S. Senator that Liz became, he recognized his father’s imprint on her strengths as a speaker. “She knows how to explain the most complicated issues in simple, ordinary language that people from various backgrounds and education levels can understand,” he said, “and how to be convincing. She reflects everything my father taught about persuasion.”(10) Being mentored by Coach Henigan, who nurtured the talent and disposition for hard work that Liz brought to GW, helped her develop her trademark clarity as a speaker.

Seventeen-year-old Liz had never been east of Oklahoma before she moved to Washington to go to college. With access to one-dollar student tickets for the Lisner Auditorium, she saw her first Shakespeare play, ballet, modern dance, chamber music, and symphony orchestra concerts.(11) At the National Gallery of Art,(12) she visited her first art museum. Those experiences, along with events involving her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, were like a crash course in Western culture. “They changed who I am and what I do,” she said, “and made me forever after a strong supporter of the humanities.”(13) 

During her second year, she decided to change her major and entered the bachelor of science program in speech-language pathology and audiology so that she could work with children with speech and hearing disabilities. She envisioned teaching children with special needs in public schools and kept on track to earn a teaching certificate as well.(14) The debate team was onto a new topic about guaranteed minimum income, an alternative social safety net that has been discussed since Sir Thomas More envisioned it in Utopia five hundred years ago. The national debate issue (written out, as always, in the style of a legislative motion), “RESOLVED: The federal government should guarantee a minimum annual cash income to all citizens,” plunged Liz into research about both the necessities and bureaucratic challenges of social welfare systems, issues that are still relevant today.(15) The guaranteed income idea resurfaced in the mainstream when Tesla cofounder Elon Musk and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg started talking about a universal basic income (UBI) as one answer to the job-loss challenges in a world of expanded automation. In this latest dialogue about the concept, guaranteed income is seen as an efficient way to help people retrain for new jobs or start their own businesses.(16) 

As Liz studied these issues, along with her general education courses and classes for her major, such as phonetics and language development, a familiar face popped back into her life. Jim Warren, who had broken up with her four years earlier in high school, was now a “math geek” at IBM working on the Apollo space missions in Houston.(17) He was established in an exciting career and ready to settle down, and Liz was more than flattered when he proposed. “He seemed so sure of himself,” she said, “so confident about what life should look like.”(18) His proposal was an irresistible pull into the security she had never known. Two months later, she let go of her scholarship and dropped out of the university, trading in one dream for another. In This Fight Is Our Fight, she looked back at how her nineteen-year-old mind-set, weighed down with insecurities, won the day: 

For nineteen years I had absorbed the lesson that the best and most important thing any girl could do was “marry well,” which roughly translated into “find a decent man” and “get some financial security.” And for nineteen years I had also absorbed the message that I was a pretty iffy case—not very pretty, not very flirty, and definitely not very good at making boys feel like they were smarter than I was. Somewhere deep in my heart, I believed that no man would ever ask me to marry him. When Jim popped the question, I was so shocked that it took me about a nanosecond to say yes.(19) 

Back home in Oklahoma City, life sizzled in the glow of her happiness—she was in love, elated, walking on air. The wedding details hummed along, first with a date put on the books at the family church, May Avenue United Methodist, and then invitations. Her mother hauled out the sewing machine when Liz came home with a few yards of white satin and set out to create a sheath wedding gown with short, puffy sleeves and a white bow at the empire waist. The veil she chose floated out of the back of a small, nurse’s cap-like hat.(20) She picked out a pair of short white gloves as the final touch, and on November 3, 1968, her father walked her down the aisle.(21) 

Liz signed on with an office temp agency a week after she and Jim moved into an apartment in Houston, and Jim got back to work at IBM.(22) That year, NASA was deep into the Apollo 11 mission that would land the first man on the moon in 1969. Jim had started working for IBM four years earlier, right after graduating from college, and IBM programmers worked with the computing and data processing system that IBM provided to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. This system, called the Real-Time Computer Complex (RTCC), was involved in directing every phase of the Apollo missions, and IBM personnel manned a few chairs in the mission control center, identified by the IBM logo stitched on the back of their jackets. The RTCC computed the solutions to problems so quickly that bugs were fixed virtually in real time.(23) 

elizabeth warren excerpt
  • Warren at the 2009 Time100 Gala.

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Jim and Liz likely watched the Moon landing of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969, with the same pride as all the other IBM and NASA people involved in the mission. The Apollo 11 mission flight director, Gene Kranz, later wrote about the role that IBM’s people played as the lunar module Eagle descended: 

The systems information that we used to make the go, no-go decisions was developed by IBM, and the ultimate go, no-go decision [that day] was provided to me by computers operated by IBM engineers within NASA’s Mission Control Center. Without IBM and the systems they provided, we would not have landed on the Moon.(24)

Jim later worked on the antiballistic missile defense system, “poring over spreadsheets and hunting down bugs,” Elizabeth wrote.(25) In the meantime, she answered phones and did clerical work in her temp job assignments, chatting over coffee breaks about wanting to be a teacher. In one of those offices, a supervisor mentioned that she should check out the University of Houston.(26) It was an inexpensive public university that attracted working adults. Jim’s first response was that they couldn’t afford it, but she convinced him that with tuition only fifty dollars a semester, she could pay her own way on a part-time job, gas included. 

She transferred her credits from George Washington University and took up where she had left off, studying speech science, language disorders in children, and the anatomy of speaking and language. Just as her plan was running smoothly and with only two classes left to complete, she learned that IBM was transferring Jim to New Jersey, and she thought she might have to drop out again. Her department, however, assured her that she could finish with correspondence courses.(27) They packed up and left Houston for north central New Jersey. 

Jim bought a small house in a woodsy neighborhood of Rockaway, New Jersey, called White Meadow Lake.(28) Between studying and mailing in her assignments, Liz took on fix-up projects, refinishing floors, wallpapering, and retiling the bathroom.(29) Soon after finishing her courses, she received her diploma for a bachelor of science degree in speech pathology and audiology, and with her new credentials in hand, she looked for work in the Rockaway area.(30) Having just turned twenty-one (but still looking like fourteen, she noted in A Fighting Chance), she landed a job as a speech therapist for children with special needs.(31) Her mornings now began with a twenty-mile drive up I-287 to Riverdale Elementary School, where she helped children who had suffered from brain injuries or ailments that left them with speaking or hearing problems.(32) Since she was hired on an “emergency” teaching certificate, she enrolled in two graduate education courses to work toward her certification.(33) Her new career started strong, but the speech pathology track, with all its fits and starts, was not, it seemed, meant to be. The Riverdale position only lasted one school term—the principal, who could see by the end of that first year that she was pregnant, did not hire her back.(34) Times had not changed a lot for female teachers since her days in Mrs. Garrett’s English class.


Chapter 2 

1 Elizabeth Warren, “The Market for Data: The Changing Role of Social Sciences in Shaping the Law,” Wisconsin Law Review, no. 1 (October 13, 2002). 

2 Harry Kreisler, “Law, Politics, and the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class,” Berkeley Globetrotter, accessed April 30, 2018, http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu /people7/Warren/warren-con1.html. 

3 Dennis Henigan, phone interview with the author, January 26, 2018. 

4 Bill Toutant, phone interview with the author, January 10, 2018. 

5 Henigan, interview. 

6 Cherry Tree yearbook, George Washington University Cherry Tree yearbook (1967–1968), 76, https://ia801302.us.archive.org/0/items/gwu_cherry_tree_1968 /gwu_cherry_tree_1968.pdf. 

7 “Gregory B. Millard, 37, Arts Official with City,” New York Times, October 7, 1984, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/07/obituaries/gregory-b-millard-37-arts -official-with-city.html. 

8 American Forensic Association, National Debate Tournament Topics 1946–2012, http://groups.wfu.edu/NDT/HistoricalLists/topics.html. 

9 Toutant, interview. 

10 Henigan, interview. 

11 DiscoverGW, “Senator Elizabeth Warren Discusses Her Time at GW,” YouTube, published May 8, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CBbiZYQ0mg. 

12 George Washington University Cherry Tree yearbook (1967), 208, https ://ia601304.us.archive.org/18/items/gwu_cherry_tree_1967/gwu_cherry_tree _1967.pdf. 

13 DiscoverGW, “Senator Elizabeth Warren Discusses Her Time at GW.” 

14 DiscoverGW, “Senator Elizabeth Warren Discusses Her Time at GW.” 

15 George Washington University Cherry Tree yearbook (1967–1968), 76, https ://ia801302.us.archive.org/0/items/gwu_cherry_tree_1968/gwu_cherry_tree _1968.pdf. 

16 Clay Dillow and Brooks Rainwater, “Why Free Money for Everyone Is Silicon Valley’s Next Big Idea,” Fortune, June 29, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/06/29 /universal-basic-income-free-money-silicon-valley/. 

17 Warren, A Fighting Chance, 13. 

18 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 104. 

19 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 110. ElizabethWarren_INTs.indd 284 5/17/18 3:12 PM Notes | 285 

20 Warren, A Fighting Chance, 13. 

21 Texas Divorce Index, November 3, 1968. 

22 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 111. 

23 Jason Perlow,”IBM and UNIVAC in the Apollo Program,” ZDNet.com, July 13, 2009, http://www.zdnet.com/pictures/ibm-and-univac-in-the-apollo-program/. 

24 IBM, “The Apollo Missions,” IBM 100, accessed May 1, 2018, http://www-03 .ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/apollo/. 

25 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 104. 

26 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 111. 

27 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 111. 

28 Kathleen O’Brien, “How Elizabeth Warren’s Rutgers Roots Forged Her Future VP Prospects,” NJ.com, last modified June 26, 2016, http://www.nj.com/news /index.ssf/2016/06/sen_elizabeth_warren_-_her_jersey_years.html. 

29 Warren, A Fighting Chance, 14. 

30 Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight, 111. 

31 Warren, A Fighting Chance, 14. 

32 O’Brien, “How Elizabeth Warren’s Rutgers Roots Forged Her Future VP Prospects.” 

33 Kreisler, “Law, Politics, and the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” 

34 Warren, A Fighting Chance, 14.

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Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.

By Antonia Felix

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