I was only up to Page 9 of "A Fighting Chance" when my jaw dropped. "OMG," I wrote in my notes. "She gave up full scholarship to GW to get married at 19." "She," as in Sen. Elizabeth Warren, consumer activist and scourge of Wall Street. "GW," as in George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.
Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, is a populist gale force, and that's what I had intended to write about in discussing her new book. But I kept coming back to this striking cautionary episode from the predawn of second-wave feminism, and all that it foretold for one woman's life.
"A Fighting Chance" begins with Warren vividly describing her family's struggle to hang on to jobs, homes and cars after her father's heart attack; her mother telling her there was no money for college, and besides, a college degree made it harder for girls to find husbands; and her determination, nevertheless, to see if her one talent — debating — could be her ticket to a new life. When GW offered her a scholarship and loan, she writes: "I was thrilled. Good-bye, Oklahoma City — GW, here I come!"
A short eight pages and two years later, it was goodbye to all that. Jim Warren, the first boy she had ever dated (when she was 13 and he was 17) and who had dumped her, had proposed. "I was amazed — amazed and grateful — that he had chosen me. I said yes in a nanosecond," she writes. Within eight weeks, she had dropped out of college, left town and married him.
She was 19, I remind myself. Who among us hasn't done something truly regrettable, even life-altering, at that age? Still, you almost have to sympathize with 1960s college officials who were wary of admitting women or giving them scholarships. Why waste money on someone who would leave instantly if a man proposed? Warrren, of course, went on to scrap her way to an education and a mission. But from our vantage point now, it's simply beyond comprehension that she would drop out rather than wait a couple of years to get married — or that a man would expect that of her.
Warren's drive ultimately prevailed over numerous obstacles that the liberation movement, still in its infancy, hadn't yet started to sweep away. She finished college as a commuter student at the University of Houston, followed her husband to New Jersey, and taught special education for a year — but she was not invited back because she was pregnant. She tried to be a happy homemaker but failed and convinced her husband that law school was a good idea. For three years she juggled classes and their young daughter only to end up at another dead end because she was heavily pregnant at graduation and no one would give her a job. She took clients at home and taught a night class at Rutgers University while a neighbor watched her children.
Then Warren's husband had to transfer again. He had a choice of cities, including Houston, and she managed to snag a teaching offer from the University of Houston's law school. But she writes that she was "smacked down by child care." One arrangement after another fell apart. When her Aunt Bee called from Oklahoma, she cried and said she would have to stop teaching. Instead, two days later, Aunt Bee moved in.
That was not the end of the disruptions and transitions. Warren says her husband had expected her to be "100 percent focused" on their home and children. "I loved every adventure that I took on — and he didn't," she writes. When she asked him one night if he wanted a divorce, he said "yes" and moved out the next weekend. That left her and her elderly aunt to handle the household, and Warren soon hatched the idea of her parents moving from Oklahoma to Houston to help out. "I needed them," Warren writes. "So they came."
How different and how much easier Warren's life might have been had she kept her scholarship, stayed in college, and put off marriage and children — in short, followed the advice everyone is always giving to everyone else about how to avoid stress, poverty and divorce.
It all ended well for Warren. She married a fellow law professor, Bruce Mann, who helped raise her children and supported her burgeoning career. Her daughter has co-written books with her. And her son has designed databases for her research. If she had lived a simpler, more traditional life, she might still have taken on the same work of trying to protect families from financial ruin. But her personal experiences as a child, a single mother and a female lawyer give urgency to a crusade that would be academic for many other politicians.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.