Elizabeth Warren Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Law, Politics, and the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class: Conversation with Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, Harvard University; March 8, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Warren, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

Born and raised in Oklahoma.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Ah. Well, my parents were from Depression-era, dust-bowl Oklahoma, and that shapes your life growing up. I was the last of four children, I have three much older brothers, and by the time I came along I was really kind of the second family for them. They hadn't recovered from the Depression and I guess in many ways they never did. They talked about it, those were the stories that permeated my childhood, what it was like to have seven years of drought, what it was like when nobody had any money, what it was like when all your neighbors left to go to California or someplace where they thought there might be jobs. My parents hung on, they stayed, my father worked a series of different jobs. He was a maintenance man in an apartment house -- it was his last job -- but they always saw themselves as middle-class people. They always saw themselves as people who -- for them the distinction was, they used good English and they didn't say "ain't." Those were important indicia of middle-classness of my folks. They believed in education and were very proud of this little daughter they had.

Around the dinner table was there a discussion of politics, of law, or did that all come to you later?

Oh, no. Not around the dinner table. Mostly around the dinner table it was discussion of cars, or rodeos and dogs and cows and horses, and a little discussion of worry about others in the family. There was always a big sense in my family of -- we all tried to look out for each other, but nobody in the family really had much of anything.

A theme that you pursue in these books that we're going to talk about is what's happening to the family. From what you're saying now I get the sense that the family was very important as a last resort for survival in the context of these very harsh times.

Yes, that's exactly right. People who didn't have family or people who broken from their family, they were the true poor, they were the ones with nothing. As long as you had family, you had people who would make sure that you got fed one way or another. Family was about canning peaches, and canning peaches was about making sure that there'd at least be something come next November, when it was cold outside and there were no more crops coming in. Family is the heart of what it's about.

Did you have any teachers as a young person, before you went off to college, who shaped your thinking about the kind of career you might take?

I had wonderful teachers. I'm of that generation where there were only two things that a woman could do, if she wanted to do something other than stay home, and that was, she could become a nurse or she could become a teacher. And so, there were some awfully able women who taught me from grade school on, and what they opened me up to was the possibility that I, too, could be a teacher. And frankly, when I went off to college, the whole idea [was] that I could be a teacher. That's what I wanted to do. I just didn't quite know what kind of teacher I would end up becoming.

At college what did you major in, and what was the focus of your interest?

I came to college on a debate scholarship. I was sixteen years old when I graduated from high school and I got a full scholarship in debate that was room, board, tuition, books and a little spending money. It was a fabulous scholarship at George Washington University, if I would debate for them. It was sort of the equivalent of an athletic scholarship, only this was one that actually a girl could get, even though there weren't very many girls in debate either. I was going to be a teacher and I quickly switched over and decided what I wanted to do was work with brain-injured children. So, I got my degree in speech pathology and audiology, which meant that I would be able to work with children who had head trauma and other kinds of brain injuries. And that's what I did.

For a while? I mean, you actually pursued that career?

I actually did. I was married at nineteen and graduated from college after I'd married, and my first year post-graduation I worked in a public school system with the children with disabilities. I did that for a year, and then that summer I didn't have the education courses, so I was on an "emergency certificate," it was called. I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, "I don't think this is going to work out for me." I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years, and I was really casting about, thinking, "What am I going to do?" My husband's view of it was, "Stay home. We have children, we'll have more children, you'll love this." And I was very restless about it.

So, I went back home to Oklahoma -- by this point we were living in New Jersey because of his job -- I went back home to Oklahoma for Christmas and saw a bunch of the boys that I had been in high school debate with and they'd all gone on to law school, and they said, "You should go to law school. You'll love it." I said, "You really think so?" And they said, "Of all of us, you should have gone to law school. You're the one who should've gone to law school." So, I took the tests, applied to law school, and the day my daughter, who later became my co-author, turned two, I started law school at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey, which at the time had the nickname of being the "People's Electric Law Company," a really crazy place.

[laughs] Lawyers for the -- yeah.

That's right. These were the wild and crazy lawyers, [including] Arthur Cannoy, who was a wonderful figure and had been very active in the Civil Rights movement. It's a very small law school.

I'd never met a lawyer. I mean, I'd never -- I didn't travel in those circles, and I took to law school like a pig takes to mud. I mean, this was fabulous. I loved law school. And then my third year, final year, in law school I got pregnant again and I didn't take a job. Alex was born about three weeks after I graduated and it was the hardest moment in my life, because I thought this world that had opened up to me, this world of ideas, and law was a tool, you could make things happen with it -- I thought, because I didn't take a job right out of law school, it was all over, I just kissed it all goodbye. I'd stepped off the train and would never have a chance to get back on it. So, I took the bar, hung out a shingle in northern Jersey, did real estate closings and little incorporations an lawsuits, all on the civil side, and raised my two babies.

And then Rutgers called and said, "Somebody didn't show up to teach a class. Would you like to come and teach it, and start Thursday?" And I said, "Yeah. How hard could it be?" Right? And so, I started teaching, and then my husband got transferred to Houston and I got my first full-time tenure track teaching job, teaching at the University of Houston. We ended up divorcing and then I went to the University of Texas. I remarried, went to the University of Michigan, went to the University of Pennsylvania, went to Harvard.

And now at Harvard.

And now I'm at Harvard. Isn't that an amazing story?

It is, and one of the things that I hear here is that this is a kind of a turning point in women seeing a different role for themselves. I'm curious, what do you see, in addition to the opportunity that was suddenly presented, in your background that made you able to seize these opportunities?

Partly my mother always just said that I was just contrary, that some kids are just born that way. Families tell stories and those stories both reflect what the children are and shape what the children are. The story that was always told, [from] when I was very little, is that when I was about two and a half I would be allowed to play in the front yard but my mother would tell me, "Don't go into the street." And I would look at her and wait until she turned her back and step right on the street, and I would just stand in the street, just a little bit, just on the curb, but I would stand in the street. And my mother was big on switches. She'd pull a switch off a tree and just switch the backs of my legs. And I'd cry and she'd tell me not to go in the street, but I'd cry and I'd step right back in the street. Finally my mother realized I was going to go in the street, so she said, "Okay, here are the rules for going in the street. You look this way and you look that way, but here's how you safely go in the street, maybe go on the other side, you never want to stand on the street," gave me all the rules for the street, and I was perfectly happy.

I think partly that I always had my neck bowed, I was always going to do something else. When we were able to pick an elective and all the girls picked drama, I, of course, had to pick debate. When all the girls dropped out of doing something, I said I was going to take physics, you know, just because. So, there was a little bit of the "just because," and it was a moment when Gloria Steinem was out there talking. Did I think I was going to be one of those "women's libbers"? Heavens, no. I wanted children, I wanted a family, and I somehow thought those were either-or choices. And yet, I wanted to do things. I just got lucky.

So, you were adventuresome and courageous.

I don't know, I never thought of it that way. I once was at a friend's house and I saw that they had wallpaper in their bathroom and I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. So, I came home and I went to Sears and I saw this brochure on how you could do wallpaper and I took my babysitting money and I bought enough wallpaper to wallpaper our bathroom, and I announced at the dinner table, two weeks later when it came, I said, "I've bought wallpaper so we can wallpaper the bathroom." And my daddy said -- because it was always a family thing -- "Nobody in our family knows how to wallpaper. What are you doing?" I said, "How hard could it be? People dumber than us do it every day." So, it's always been a kind of a -- you know, you get out there and try it. The worst that happens is you make a mess out of it and have to throw it away. So ...

Try it.

Yeah.

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