Remarkably for a first-term senator, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is also a national political figure, and a hugely polarizing one. Loathed by many—she’s been called a liar by the bankers and politicians she’s challenged, in one case even deemed “akin to the Antichrist”— Warren, 64, is also an icon to millions of Americans and spoken of as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Yet considering her background, it’s surprising that she has a seat at the table at all.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, she was the youngest of four in a household plagued by financial hardship; after her father’s heart attack, her mother answered phones at Sears to help keep the family afloat. From the beginning, Warren’s life seemed defined by limits and her determination to push past them. At 16 she won a full scholarship to George Washington University. But feeling the years of pressure from her mother to marry, she dropped out after two years and wed at 19. Her husband did not want her to work. She chafed quietly; in A Fighting Chance she notes with almost subversive glee that although she won the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award in high school, it required only a written test.
Judging by her book, Warren may have started more kitchen fires than any other woman on the planet. In fact, we learn it was one of those fires that inspired her seminal 2007 Democracy magazine article, “Unsafe at Any Rate,” which called for consumer-protection laws against shoddy financial products—and likened bad mortgages to exploding toasters. Warren was a young mother when her own toaster oven went up in smoke; trying to fling the burning toast into the sink, she set the kitchen curtains aflame. Screaming, she threw her daughter’s cereal bowl at them: “The milk doused most of the fire, and I calmed down.”
Warren’s marriage flamed out as well. She had persuaded her husband to let her finish college, and even law school, but she simply “hadn’t grown into the woman we had both expected,” she writes. After remarrying and becoming a Harvard Law professor, she went on to become perhaps the country’s leading champion for the economically besieged middle class.
In 2009, as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel supervising the financial-industry bailout, Warren held hearings during which she famously grilled—and filleted—then treasury secretary Timothy Geithner. Considered too controversial to be confirmed as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she had helped create, Warren retreated home to academia before turning to politics. In 2012 she stunned everyone by beating her Republican opponent, the popular Senate incumbent, Scott Brown.
Standing in the not-burning kitchen of her home in Cambridge, where she spends half of every week, Elizabeth Warren talks by phone about power, politics, the banking industry and the Zen of becoming a blonde.
Q You’ve had so many big changes in your life. Have you planned them?
A None of them were planned. It was seeing the door open a crack and thinking, “I could run through there. Why not? I could do that.” The hardest one was the decision to run for the Senate.
Q Why is that?
A You know, I loved setting up the consumer agency; I would have stayed forever. But it wasn’t to be. So I headed back to Cambridge. I love teaching, so I wasn’t blue. People kept calling and saying that I could have a chance to keep fighting for the things I believe in...if I would run for the Senate. I kept saying, “I’ll fight from here.” They said, “But you can do more if you run.”