Elizabeth Warren’s Stealth Feminism

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In the early 1980s, the University of Texas law school boasted a good-sized faculty of some 60 professors, only a handful of whom were women. At a time when the legal teaching field was egregiously male-dominated, Texas was no exception; yearbooks from the era show an array of grave-looking older male faculty members in sober suits and horn-rimmed eyeglasses; a sprinkling of flashier young guys with mustaches and long hair; and the occasional female hairbob few and far between. “You could start a law school with all the women Texas turned down, and it would be so stellar, you couldn’t believe it,” recalls Patricia Cain, who in 1974 had become the first tenure-track woman hired.

In the years after Cain broke the hiring barrier, she watched intently as a half-dozen or so women came on. She pushed for more, but the boys’ club was alive and well. Then, in 1981, the school agreed to try out a dynamic young woman named Elizabeth Warren.

On the face of it, Warren and Cain had surprisingly little in common. Cain was a classic boundary-breaker of the era: a liberal, a lesbian and an unabashed feminist. Even now, nearly 50 years later, she still has her copy of the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine. Warren was a product of the tradition-minded Midwest, a mother of two and the kind of mainstream woman-in-a-man’s-world who didn’t make feminism a “thing,” as Cain puts it. Perhaps because of this, when Warren first came to the University of Texas as a visiting professor—the tryout role for potential hires—their paths didn’t much cross. A movement was coalescing called “feminist legal theory,” which held that the law, rather than being an instrument of justice, historically was a weapon used to consign women to subordinate status, and Cain gravitated toward another visiting professor who was advancing that theory. Of Warren, she recalls: “She just wasn’t in a position to kind of coalesce with the feminist side of the aisle,” though, “I think she was evolving.”

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