Elizabeth Warren Feels Like She's Finally Being Heard

by Donna Freydkin
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and Win McNamee/Getty

Here’s the thing about Elizabeth Warren. Yeah, she’s a relentless champion for working women, and mothers in general. Yeah, she’s just written a book, Persist, that digs deep into the very real issue so many women face at home, at work, just about everywhere: Not being heard, no matter how much they speak up. And yeah, as a senator representing Massachusetts and former presidential contender, she eviscerated a certain man’s misogyny in an epic presidential debate, and made consumer protections and economic opportunity her calling cards, tackling topics that are neither sexy nor headline-generating but so very, very vital.

But Warren is also a person, a very witty and warm and gregarious one, with a sharp sense of humor. She’s a dog owner. A mom. A grandmother. A hiker. A human who is happiest when she’s connecting with other kids and their pets. She does her Zoom from her verdant back porch, with her dog nearby.

When a writer’s child, and his cat, want to say hello to Warren, she’s more than just game. “How are you? Who is this? I have somebody who never wants to say his name either,” she says, calling for her canine. “Bailey! Come here, bud! Come on! Here he comes! Big hunky dog. He says hello! And look at that cute, cute cat.”

That, in a nutshell, is Warren. She is the human personification of the truism that all politics is personal. That includes policies dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which crushed a generation of working parents, and in particular, moms. As of March of 2021, data from the Census bureau showed that around 10 million U.S. mothers who lived with their school-aged children were not actively working in the month of January, a 1.4 million person increase than the year previous.

When whatever shell we have of a childcare safety net falls away, when schools close and daycare centers go out of business, moms take the hit. They quit jobs. Someone has to feed the kids, clean the house, and make sure math is done. Women of color are over-represented in these numbers, and have been the hardest hit in the pandemic. And hence, in the first two months of the pandemic, 3.5 million moms with school-aged kids left work, and nearly 1-in-2 moms of school aged kids were not actively working in April.

Scary Mommy talked to Senator Warren about her book, about what moms need, and about where to go from here.

This line from Persist, to me, sums up your book in one sentence: “Like so many women in so many settings, I found myself wondering if he had even heard me.”

Sen. Warren: Yep. And it shows up in so many different ways. How many decades have we heard politicians in Washington talk about infrastructure — and the need for infrastructure — and that infrastructure is how we build our country going forward? And infrastructure is how people can get to work? And infrastructure is so that we can get goods to market?

And what do they always need? Roads, bridges, communications, broadband. All important things. But childcare is infrastructure, guys. Childcare, so that mamas can actually go to work, so momma’s can finish their education, that’s infrastructure. And when the president last week talked about childcare, when he addressed the nation [on infrastructure], finally, I felt like, “We’re being heard. We’re being heard.”

What has been the real-person impact of last, one that goes just beyond the numbers?

Sen. Warren: I believe that what’s happened in the last year to working moms has been devastating. It’s been devastating on an individual level. But the millions of moms who either lost their jobs, or who tried to do two jobs, literally at the same moment that they were trying to work from home and deal with the little one running through the background…

We see now that many, many moms have just given up and said, “I’m not going back to work.” Many cut back on their hours. Many didn’t want to cut back, but saw opportunities slip away because they couldn’t concentrate. They couldn’t be there, and try to manage everything that was going on at home. I think that the impact of what’s happened over the last year is something that will be felt for an entire generation.

In what sense?

Sen. Warren: There will be women whose retirements will be tougher, and less [padded,] because of what’s happened this past year. Which is why I am so passionately committed this last year. It’s like a double down year about the importance of getting our policies right.

You’re talking about the numbers, and paperwork, whatever policies — policy is personal. I try to make the point in the book that my own passion for policy comes out of a lot of hard experience. It comes out of being fired when I got pregnant. It comes out [almost being] to not being able to finish my education, because I couldn’t get childcare, or nearly losing my first job because I had trouble with childcare. I couldn’t manage it. It’s losing my brother to COVID, because we didn’t even have a plan for how to deal with a pandemic.

The decisions made in Washington touched every one of us, not just me — it touched every one of us at a personal level. And that’s both the bad news when it’s wrong, but it is the good news when we get it right.

Right — what do you mean by that?

Sen. Warren: We have the power to change those policies. We have our toes right on the line to get these policies changed. Changed around childcare, changed around student loan debt, changed around housing and Social Security. We make those changes, and we create — opportunity opportunity for women! Opportunity for mothers, opportunity for people who are working their hearts out and scrambling to keep their heads above water. We can do better as a nation. We can do better for each other.

Do you think that this many women dropping out of the workforce to take care of their kids has set the movement for universal child care back? Meaning, the perception being that they’re home anyway, so the need for childcare is now a moot point.

Sen. Warren: I don’t think so. I think this past year, we had a childcare crisis. But before the pandemic hit, [there were] childcare deserts all across this nation where it didn’t even matter if you had two bucketfuls of money, you still couldn’t find childcare. It just wasn’t there.

There was a crisis in available care — if you needed it early in the morning, or you needed it late into the evening, or you needed it over the weekend. There’s a real crisis in waiting list,because there are just not enough spots for the babies, and a real crisis in costs.

I didn’t realize that I had to sign up for a place in daycare when I was still pregnant.

Sen. Warren: How crazy, before you were showing, right? Then you may be able to get a spot. And if you’d been smart, you actually would’ve signed up when you were just kind of thinking about it, back when you had that second glass of wine.

Ha! Right.

Sen. Warren: You know in about half the states in the nation, a year of childcare costs more than a year at the state university. And families have got to come up with that under our current system. So I think the crisis was already there.

My sense is the pandemic just shoved it in everybody’s face.

So it’s important to me. That’s why I’m glad this book is out right now. It is important to me that we put the wind in the sails for real change. In the next hundred days, let’s get universal child care, universal pre-K, available to every baby, and every mom. Let’s raise the wages of every childcare worker and preschool teacher in this country. Let’s get those things done in a hundred days.