By Ruth Steinhardt
Elizabeth Warren was a mother with a career as a special education teacher behind her when she became a lawyer, then a law professor, then the Democratic senator from Massachusetts. And though those personal experiences have been essential to her public policy work, they’ve meant that she hasn’t always looked like a traditional fit for positions of power.
Her first appearance in court was a perfect example, Ms. Warren said Monday night in a conversation with voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, hosted by the George Washington University and Politics and Prose. On that occasion, the judge mistook her for the plaintiff—unable to believe that the woman in the “spiffy suit and the perky little bow,” as Ms. Warren recounted in her new book, “Persist,” could be a qualified lawyer representing a client.
“It’s one of those moments that we all face, I think…when it’s so clear—and no one has to speak it out loud—but you just don’t belong here,” Ms. Warren said. “You’re not what it looks like. You’re not the person we expect to see in this spot, doing this thing. And that is the moment where you’ve got a choice, to me: You either fold in on yourself and never put yourself in that position again, or you push on through it.”
In a conversation marked by friendly mutual admiration, Ms. Warren, ATT '66 to '68 and one of GW's Monumental Alumni, pointed to Ms. Abrams’ work with her voting organization, Fair Fight, as an example of the persistence she champions. After Ms. Abrams lost a contentious and controversial election for Georgia governor in 2018, Ms. Warren said, “Your response—what you showed the rest of us—was not just to lay down and say, ‘I can't do this anymore, this is so painful.’ It was to get back in the fight…And it worked.”
Ms. Abrams’ work in Georgia was a major factor in Democratic Senate victories in that state in 2020, Ms. Warren said—victories that led to a slim Democratic Senate majority and thereby to the narrowly-passed COVID-19 rescue package “that has really helped families that are suffering, that has extended unemployment insurance, that has put a check in the hands of lots of people who can use it.”
Ms. Warren was explicit about the concrete effects of public policy on personal trajectories. Her first career as a special education teacher ended when she became visibly pregnant, a common occurrence for educators at the time. When she decided to return to law school as a mother, she was almost prevented from doing so by the difficulty of finding affordable and dependable child care. As a senator, she’s made universal child care a priority issue and is calling for a $700 billion federal investment to make it possible.
“I came that close—a hair’s breadth—to not being able to go back to school, and my whole life would look different right now,” she said. “If we want to build an America that’s full of opportunity, if we want to build an America where productivity goes up, [then] we need to invest in child care.”
Ms. Warren also discussed her 2020 presidential bid, which she put in the context of her lifelong vocation as a teacher. As a candidate whose slogan was “Warren Has a Plan for That,” she was sometimes dinged for seeming pedantic. But, she said, planning is more than a teacherly preoccupation for her. It’s personal, and its absence has major consequences.
“My oldest brother died from COVID-19, and he died at a time when the president of the United States not only didn’t have a plan, he was anti-plan,” she said. “If America had had a plan [for the pandemic] early, it’s always possible that my brother would be alive.”
In fact, Ms. Warren said her plans—not the results of the primary election she lost—are the real prize and the enduring reminder of why she entered politics. Some of them, like her plans for universal childcare, canceling student loan debt and creating a meaningful wealth tax, have entered the national conversation and are gathering support beyond her presidential candidacy. And making those plans public has honed and improved them, she said.
“Planning is how we get from here to there, but it’s more than that,” Ms. Warren said. “Planning is telling the rest of the world what you’re doing, and that has real consequences. It means, partly, that the rest of the world can give you better ideas.”
On the day she dropped out of the Democratic primary race, she said, a neighbor stenciled one huge word in chalk on the sidewalk outside her house: “Persist.” Now the title of her latest book, the word was a reference to a notorious 2017 incident in which Senate Republicans officially censored her for continuing to read a letter from Coretta Scott King objecting to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. When asked to stop, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said—a phrase that became a mainstream feminist slogan. When her bid for the presidency ended, Ms. Warren realized that nevertheless, she would still be able to work toward implementing the plans she’d so painstakingly created.
“I think a loss forces you to ask yourself, ‘Well, why are you doing this to begin with?’” Ms. Warren said. “And for me, the answer's pretty straightforward: 81 plans. That's why I’m always doing this. I mean, dang, that’s what it was always about.”
A recording of the conversation will be available to watch May 12.