How Elizabeth Warren learned to fight
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How Elizabeth Warren learned to fight

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    The home where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) lived as a young child in Norman, Okla.,on June 12. Warren was Betsy to her mother, who expected her to marry. Liz to fellow high school debaters, whom she regularly beat. Now, the lessons of an Oklahoma childhood are center stage in the presidential race.

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    In a photo via the Warren campaign, Elizabeth Warren with her high school debate partner, Karl Johnson, in 1966. Warren was Betsy to her mother, who expected her to marry. Liz to fellow high school debaters, whom she regularly beat. Now, the lessons of an Oklahoma childhood are center stage in the presidential race.

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    In a photo via the Warren campaign, Elizabeth Warren in her third grade school photo. Warren was Betsy to her mother, who expected her to marry. Liz to fellow high school debaters, whom she regularly beat. Now, the lessons of an Oklahoma childhood are center stage in the presidential race.

OKLAHOMA CITY >> It was 1962 in Oklahoma City, and Liz Herring, a new student at Northwest Classen High School, was feeling insecure. She was good at school, had skipped a grade, and now, as a skinny freshman with glasses and crooked teeth who had grown up in a town south of the capital, she was hungry to fit in.

She joined the Cygnet Pep Club to show her school spirit and the Courtesy Club to help visitors find their way around the school. She became a member of the Announcers Club, reading messages over the school’s central sound system. But it was the debate club where she really found herself. At a time when home ec and preparing for marriage were priorities for young women, debate was a place where they could compete on equal ground.

She loved learning about the big topics of the day — Medicare, unions, nuclear disarmament. She began carrying around a large metal box with hundreds of index cards with quotes and facts written on them.

She was competitive and had extraordinary focus and self-discipline, spending hours after school each day practicing. Joe Pryor, a high school friend and debate teammate, remembers her “ruthlessness in preparation.” By the time they were juniors, he said, “she was just flat out better than me.”

Pryor still recalls that even among good high school debaters, there was something different about his teammate Liz. “She wanted to be the best,” he said last month. “She wanted it more than I did. She wanted it more than anybody did.”

It has been more than 50 years since that time and Liz Herring has become Elizabeth Warren, one of the 24 women and men vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency.

Her ferocious command of details on a debate stage once earned her a college scholarship. Now she is deploying that skill in town halls across the country and Wednesday in the Democratic National Committee’s first debate for the 2020 election.

While her prowess in debate has remained a constant, her political views have not.

Since rising to national prominence after the 2008 financial crisis, Warren has been seen as a pugilist on the left, a fighter against an economic system that she sees as fundamentally unfair. But in her early life and as a young adult, Warren was not bucking the system or the conservative community she inhabited. She was striving within it, using it to launch herself out into the world.

“She needed it,” said Judy Garrett, her sophomore year English teacher. “She needed it to get where she is.”

That was not easy in 1960s Oklahoma. There seemed to be only one option for an ambitious woman: becoming a teacher. Warren set her sights on that. Her mother, the driving force in the family, spent her time making sure that her only daughter knew any professional aspiration should come second to marriage.

Warren’s path to success was not direct, but a circuitous journey of starts and stops. She fought to go to college out of state but dropped out at 19 when her high school boyfriend reappeared with a proposal for marriage. That moment reflects the central struggle of her early life, a tension between her ambitions in the world versus her understanding of a woman’s role in the home.

Even now, her old friends and acquaintances express some surprise at her presidential run. Her high school debate partner, Karl Johnson, a star student, used to have aspirations for higher office, they said. And while Warren was his equal in talent and drive, they had not imagined that she, a woman, would be the one to try.

“It’s a real commentary on our generation,” said Gary Johnson, Johnson’s younger brother. “No one ever thought it would be Liz.”

The Herrings of Wetumka

Warren’s family has been in Oklahoma as long as it has been a state. Her parents grew up in the tiny town of Wetumka, where the western prairie meets the eastern hills, and eloped in 1932.

The Herrings, her father’s family, opposed the match because her mother’s family, the Reeds, were part Native American, according to Warren’s account in her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance.” In an interview in The New Yorker, Warren said she learned of the elopement after pestering her mother about her wedding dress, only to be told that she never had one.

Her father’s family owned a hardware store, and he went from working there to a failed car sales venture in the town of Seminole to selling carpet for Montgomery Ward in Norman, a town about 20 miles south of the capital.

He and his wife, Pauline, had three boys, Don Reed, John and David, and eight years later, a little girl, Elizabeth, who was born in June 1949. She was a surprise that her mother was fond of saying made her a member of the PTA “longer than any woman on God’s green earth,” Warren wrote in “A Fighting Chance.”

As a child, Betsy, as her family called her, liked to have things go her way, a childhood playmate from her street in Norman remembered.

“Have you ever been around someone who has to be in charge, who has to be the one that everybody looks up to?” said Danice Bowers, who now works in a school library in Shawnee, Oklahoma. “That was Betsy Herring.”

She was also smarter than the rest of the children, Bowers said, and when she reached sixth grade, she skipped it. Her mother pressed for the family to move from Norman to Oklahoma City so their daughter could attend what she saw as the best school around. That was Northwest Classen, a modern building of glass and brick that had a reputation for academic excellence. It had a German club, a Spanish club and a Great Books club, even its own amateur radio station. The Herring family settled just a few blocks away.

Warren didn’t grow up with the politics she has today but came to them later through her research on why people declare bankruptcy. But a seed was planted early in the form of financial distress that shook her own family.

When she was 12, her father had a heart attack. Warren describes what happened next in “A Fighting Chance.” He came home from the hospital changed. He ate poached eggs with the yolks taken out and got yelled at if he tried to lift grocery bags. His job as a salesman for Montgomery Ward was downgraded to commission-only. Pauline, who was 50 then, had to go to work for the first time in her married life. The episode is now a staple of her daughter’s stump speech.

Her parents drank, her mother yelled, and her father seethed. One day, her mother, crying in an upstairs bedroom, jammed her body into a formal black dress that no longer fit and walked to a job interview at Sears.

“I stood looking at her while she tugged on the zipper,” Warren wrote. “She rubbed her eyes with another Kleenex and blew her nose. She stood still for a while. Finally, she lifted her head and looked straight at me. ‘How do I look? Is it too tight?’ “

Writing about it as an adult, Warren would show that the experience had left her with a deep understanding of working-class pain: at its root is a feeling of worthlessness and an instinct to hide from the world.

Her father, she recalled, told her that the shame of failure had nearly killed him. “He wanted to die,” she wrote. “He wanted to disappear from our lives and from the Earth and from everything that had gone wrong.”

‘All a Bunch of Cheaters’

The experience at age 12 left Warren with the belief that honest people help themselves — that when trouble arrives, they tug on the dress, blow their nose and walk to Sears. That assumption guided her research on personal bankruptcy in her early years as a law professor.

“I set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters,” she said in a 2007 interview, describing to a Berkeley historian her views of families who declared bankruptcy. “I was going to expose these people who were taking advantage of the rest of us by hauling off to bankruptcy and just charging debts that they really could repay.”

That is the sort of sentiment that Warren’s high school friends might have expected to hear from her. As a teenager and young adult, Warren was conservative, said Dr. Katrina Cochran, a close high school friend who would go on to become a psychologist.

The two women sat next to each other for years in desks arranged alphabetically by surname, and Cochran, who was Katrina Harry in high school, remembered talking about politics at lunchtime. She adored her friend, but their political views differed. Warren believed government’s role in American life should be limited.

“She was extremely conservative at the time,” said Cochran, whose father was working in Democratic politics. She said Warren would joke about her friend’s Democratic leanings. “She would ask me what other subversive organizations I was a member of besides the Democratic Party.”

Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907, had been a crazy quilt of political impulses, from the prairie populism of the 1890s to the election of socialists in the 1910s.

By the early 1960s, when Warren started high school, the Republican Party was beginning to take the state back from decades of Democratic control. The dominant culture, regardless of political party, was conservative — a pride in country and an emphasis on family that Warren was steeped in.

“The Summer of Love hadn’t reached us,” Pryor, a high school debate teammate, said of Oklahoma in the 1960s. “When you saluted the flag, it was emotional. You believed we were right to fight the Communists in Vietnam. It was not right to doubt the government. This was the era we grew up in. We were true believers at that point.”

That was precisely how Cochran — who has recently been back in touch with Warren and even spoke in a campaign ad — described her friend, wondering aloud in the interview “how someone who was so rich in the idea of nationalism and conservatism and capitalism could have such a significant turnaround politically.”

Karl Johnson, Warren’s debating partner, said in May that he had started to “become radicalized around the Vietnam War and protest music,” in their junior year. He remembered being “pilloried for weeks on end as a traitor and a communist,” in the local media after telling reporters he opposed the war, and being called into the principal’s office because he refused to cut his hair.

“Liz was not a member of that group that talked politics a lot and was anti-war,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t put off by my political views. She just didn’t share them.”

By Warren’s own account, her parents were not the types to talk politics around the dinner table. As for the war, it was personal for them in another way: Don Reed, Warren’s oldest brother, was flying combat missions in Vietnam.

When asked whether Warren identified as a Republican in those years, her campaign said she would not give an interview. An attempt to find out from her brother, David Herring, who still lives in Norman, was unsuccessful — he politely declined to talk after answering his door.

Not an ‘Old-Maid Schoolteacher’

The conflict between her ambition and her family’s expectations came to a head in her senior year of high school. Her friends were all applying to college, and she wanted to go, too. But her mother was against it.

“She had been yelling at me,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “This Fight Is Our Fight,” recalling an argument she had with her mother. “Why was I so special that I had to go to college? Did I think I was better than everyone else in the family? Where would the money come from?”

Pauline Herring had been the one to lobby for the family to move to Oklahoma City for her daughter’s education. But she was also trying to protect her daughter in a world she knew was harsh to women who did not conform. In that social order, marriage was more important than college.

“Mother was suspicious of women who had families and worked,” Warren wrote. “Working was for women who weren’t lucky enough to have a husband and children.”

Warren had been preparing for both.

By her senior year, her classmates recalled, she was a debate team star. Her exceptional ability to focus, rare among the teenage boys she was going up against, had made Northwest Classen one of the best teams in the state. Warren and her partner, Johnson, would go on to win the state championship their senior year. She was particularly good at rebuttal — taking apart the other side’s argument in four minutes.

“I’ve seen her work miracles in that slot,” Johnson said.

But she took her home economics studies seriously, too. As a senior, she won the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award, memorizing the butterfat content of heavy cream and how to tie off a lazy daisy stitch, according to “A Fighting Chance.”

When she would tell someone she wanted to be a teacher, her mother, who called her Betsy long after she became Liz, would interrupt.

“My mother would break into the conversation and explain to whomever I was talking to, ‘But she doesn’t want to be an old-maid schoolteacher,’ ” Warren wrote. “Then she would turn to me, pause, and narrow her eyes. ‘Right, Betsy?’ “

Warren eventually won the argument. Her debating skills earned her a full scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “sort of the equivalent of an athletic scholarship, only this was one that actually a girl could get,” she said in the 2007 Berkeley interview. She paid for the application fees with money she made from babysitting and waitressing.

But two years later, when her old high school boyfriend, Jim Warren, popped back into her life with a marriage proposal, it was her mother’s values that moved her. She dropped out, and at 19, got married in the same Oklahoma City church her family had attended for years.

“For nineteen years I had absorbed the lesson that the best and most important thing any girl could do was ‘marry well,’ ” she wrote. “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.”

‘She Was Becoming Elizabeth’

That decision would set her life on a different track — at least for a while — and would perpetuate her central struggle: The young woman who bucked social expectations by fighting to go 1,300 miles away to college was also the woman who bent to them, putting her marriage and motherhood before her career.

Her decision to marry brought happiness and two children, but also, she has written, years of challenges as her career crept along, knocked off course every time her husband had to move for his — from Texas to New Jersey and back again.

They eventually divorced in 1980. Cochran said she divorced in that era, too, as did a number of other friends from Northwest Classen who were ambitious women at a time of shifting expectations. She said Elizabeth was loyal, and she believed she would have stayed married to Jim if he had been more flexible.

“She was becoming Elizabeth,” Cochran said of her friend, “and Jim didn’t know what to do.”

Eventually, her drive dominated, and she became Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor, Massachusetts senator, candidate for president.

Her voice is different now. She is no longer the young law professor researching bankruptcy cheats or the freshman debater who called her Democratic friend subversive. She now sees government solutions to working-class problems. She is making that pitch to voters, hoping it will appeal to the men who might tell their daughters they feel like failures when work doesn’t go their way or the women who find themselves in an ill-fitting dress on a job interview they didn’t expect to have to take.

Warren never moved back to Oklahoma after she left for college, but she carries a piece of it with her today — her time on the debate stage at Northwest Classen and everything she learned there.

Judy Garrett, Warren’s sophomore English teacher, who remembers her as “the smartest student I ever had,” went on Warren’s website after she realized what her star pupil had gone on to do. Garrett sent her an email. To her surprise, she got a reply.

Warren thanked her for her note and said it brought back memories of “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Julius Caesar” and the Beatles and of the December day that a boy had asked her to be his girlfriend in the custom of the day: by giving her a “drop,” a kind of charm necklace.

“Great teachers inspire students in so many ways,” she wrote. “I was skinny and young (I’d skipped a grade) and so sure everyone else had something I didn’t have and didn’t understand. I remember how you taught foreshadowing and how you said I didn’t have to go steady with a boy to be someone (a lesson I didn’t learn for about another 15 years). You were pretty and confident and calm. I so much wanted to be a teacher, and you were part of the reason.”

She concluded: “It really is good to hear from you. Please stay in touch. Liz.”

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