I happened on Antonia Felix’s Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. at the library, and I couldn’t resist. I checked it out, and I suggest you do the same.
Before I go further, I have to come clean. Because of an accident of geography, I went to Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City and was in the same graduating class as Ms. Warren. The answers to questions people ask when they learn that are (1) Yes, I knew her, but not well (there were about 800 people in our class and about 3,200 people in our school), (2) Yes, we were in some of the same classes, and (3) If I called her, she would not only not remember me, she’d ask how the hell I got her phone number and would I please lose it. With that out of the way, let’s go on to the book.
Ms. Felix starts with Ms. Warren’s childhood and teen years, which were difficult. Her parents were living close to the edge when her father had a heart attack, which caused a sudden drop in family income that claimed one car and threatened to claim their home. Her mother, who had never worked outside the home, took a minimum wage job at Sears, and Ms. Warren babysat, took in ironing, and sewed to add to the family income. Together they saved the house. When it came time for Ms. Warren to graduate from high school, her mother opposed her going on to college.
Ms. Warren went to school and then dropped out to marry a man who had been two years ahead of her at Northwest Classen. Eventually Ms. Warren completed her undergraduate degree and went on to law school. While in law school she began researching bankruptcy, believing only deadbeats took advantage of bankruptcy laws to wiggle out of their debts. Her research did not confirm her bias, so she started digging further and decided not only were bankruptcy laws not being abused, they were offering a tenuous safety net increasingly to the middle class, most of whom had encountered job losses, medical emergencies, and other hardships that swallowed their finances. Added to that were laws that protected predatory lending practices, from payday loans to confusing credit card contracts and mortgages. One finding was that people who took out mortgages were frequently offered worse terms than they were entitled to, for example, subprime loans when they qualified for prime loans.
She began her campaign for a consumer protection bureau pointing out that people buying toasters were more protected than people taking out loans. Eventually the events of the last crash led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The powers that be in Congress made it clear they would not approve Ms. Warren to head that bureau, which is what she really wanted, and which she would probably have happily made her career. I remember thinking at the time those Congress people who blocked her appointment are going to regret that decision, and sure enough, the next thing you know, she’s in the Senate. Payback is a bitch.
Ms. Felix addresses the “Pocahontas” issue, and I’m going to add my own two cents here. When we went to high school, Oklahoma had only been a state for 55 years. Before Oklahoma became a state it was Indian Territory. When we were in high school there were many people still alive who came to Oklahoma as children in the land runs that began in 1889. Oklahoma was then a young state with an Indian heritage. Many, if not most, or our classmates claimed to be “part Indian.” Evidently Ms. Warren’s mother believed she was “part Indian,” as did most of the people in the small town of Wetumka, Oklahoma, where she and her future husband grew up. This was such a common belief that Ms. Warren’s father’s family forbade the marriage and had little to do with either their son or their daughter-in-law for the rest of their lives. Is it any surprise that Ms. Warren believed she, too, was “part Indian?” She was, after all, cut off from her grandparents because they believed she was “part Indian.” According to Ms. Felix, Ms. Warren never received any preference or any jobs because of her supposed heritage. Her mistake was an honest one, unlike the president’s claim to have been of Swedish descent because his father didn’t want it known that the family was actually of German descent.
I think Ms. Felix goes a little overboard on the “Pocahontas” issue, quoting Professor David Wilkins of the University of Minnesota as saying, “But Native academics and many others outside of politics, being focused on other dimensions, want to know where she’s been all these years and want to know how someone can claim to be ‘part’ Native. You’re either Native or you’re not, from our perspective.” I’d like to know who designated Professor Wilkins the arbiter of who is and is not Native, 100% or otherwise.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, the book details Ms. Warren’s accomplishments, moving from school to school and winding up a professor at Harvard. Not bad for a poor girl from Oklahoma. From Harvard, she went to form the CFPB, and then to the Senate. And she just announced she’s going to run for president in 2020. Given how far she’s gone, I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes it.
Just consider the comparison between her and the president. Truly a self-made woman versus a celebrity claiming to be a self-made billionaire with the help of many millions from his father. A woman who has stood up for consumers and the middle class and studied bankruptcy law versus a man possibly most well known for not paying his vendors and declaring bankruptcy six times. A woman who is one of us versus a man who says he’s one of us while picking our pockets. The comparisons go on.
Believe me, I can imagine the response this post will get. I was at the 50-year reunion of our class a couple of years ago, and the vitriol spewed at Ms. Warren, who did not attend—she was endorsing Hillary Clinton that night—was amazing. How dare someone who was—gasp!—poor and not one of the super in crowd dare to rise so far above her station? By the way, some of the things Ms. Felix says about Northwest Classen, circa 1960s, are true—we were called “Silkies” because supposedly we wore silk underwear, which, of course we didn’t, and a few of the people in our school came from families that were comfortable, but many more came from families who were putting on the dog; my own family didn’t see the point in putting on the dog. My mother once told me not to worry too much about the popular kids, since, once I graduated, I’d never hear anything about them again. And for the most part, that’s been the case.
But old habits die hard. The super elites still have an event the day before our reunions. (And no, I’ve never been invited, which shows you where I stand!) I would imagine Ms. Warren’s declaring she’s going to run for president may have caused a few medical emergencies among our classmates; I would also imagine if she wins, the carnage will save the Social Security system a few bucks in Oklahoma.
I am going to be taking a breather from my blog for a while. Classes at our local university have started up again, and the papers I do for my class take up a lot of time. Have a great spring!
©2019 Larry Roth