The Gauntlet That Shaped Elizabeth Warren

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Elizabeth Warren’s time as a law professor at the University of Houston has received fairly little attention in the story of her political evolution, which tends to focus on her work at the University of Texas at Austin studying bankruptcy law. But the sexism and harassment she encountered while a young professor in Houston was an especially formative experience, as a story in the Washington Post makes clear. As the Post’s Holly Bailey writes, “Houston is where Liz Warren became Elizabeth Warren.”

What Warren went through as a young woman teaching in a field even more male-dominated in the late 1970s—from a mentor and fellow law professor who sexually harassed her to being treated by her colleagues as, in her words, a “second-class citizen”—helped shaped her and the policies that have defined her time in the Senate and current presidential campaign.

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“The faculty members themselves, often the men, treated me as if I were a second-class citizen,” she said to the Post. “It was a lonely experience.” As the Post notes, her fellow professors “frequently mistook her that first year for a secretary, the school nurse or even a lost student when they saw a woman wandering through the faculty office suites.” She was “constantly reminded” that she didn’t “look like a real law professor,” she recalled.

But it was her dealings with Eugene Smith, an influential law school faculty member on the hiring committee that brought Warren on in 1978, that pointedly illustrated for her the ways that authority could be abused, especially by men in relative positions of power. She recalled a dinner held during the hiring process, where Smith, who had limited physical mobility due to contracting polio as a child, ordered her to cut up his steak. While she was ultimately hired for the position, Warren says that the moment illustrated what she’d have to deal with on the job. “I knew it from the first minute,” Warren told the Post.

Smith also began sexually harassing her. From the Post:

He regularly sat in on her classes, evaluating her talent as a professor. He wrote memos to the law school dean and others as part of the process to determine whether she would be promoted from associate professor to tenured faculty member. He was, in many ways, the gatekeeper to her future.

But, according to Warren, he was also increasingly a harasser: He commented on her clothes and appearance in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. He told dirty jokes and invited her out for drinks, which she declined. She had to get home to her family, she reminded him, hoping he would get the hint.

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And then one day, while the two were in his office, Smith shut the door and tried to grab her. (This is an incident that Warren has spoken of in the past, including, in a fucking incredible move, during the eulogy she gave at Smith’s funeral.)

Warren didn’t report him, though she told the Post that she “considered punching him in the face.” But she knew how much power he held over her career. “If Gene wanted to sink me, he could,” she said to the Post. Others also recommended that she keep quiet, including their fellow professor John Mixon, whom Warren would regularly consult with for advice. If she reported him, Mixon recalled telling her, she “would become known as a troublemaker,” which given their power differential, would hurt only her in the end.

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But the five years she spent at the University of Houston ultimately set her on the path that led her to politics and now, running for president. Her time there, Warren told the Post, “was when the whole world opened up for me.” It’s not a stretch to connect her time at the University of Houston, where her professional ambitions butted up against the whims of powerful men, to the policies she would eventually go on to embrace. “I wasn’t afraid of him physically so much as I was afraid of what I knew he could take away from me,” Warren said of Smith. She learned something crucial about the systems that people vulnerable. She would later learn how to fight back.

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