Elizabeth Warren Is Still in the Fight
During this less-than-hopeful time in history, it can be tempting to recede into our private lives and wallow instead of springing into action. The pandemic has spelled one setback after another, especially for women: record job losses, endless childcare frustrations, and the continuous rollback of reproductive rights. There's so much to rage at and to try to fix, and an equal measure of exhaustion that can make throwing up our hands in resignation a more appealing response. Deep down, though, we know we can't afford to.
Enter consumer advocate, universal childcare proponent, and Golden Retriever lover Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has seemingly never met a problem she couldn't solve with a plan. Sen. Warren knows we're worn out and short on hope. Yet her new project is so bursting with it that it feels both incongruent and wildly necessary right now. She has written a children's book — Pinkie Promises, out October 12 — meant to inspire little girls (and everybody else) to leave their comfort zones and follow their dreams. The story follows a girl named Polly who becomes frustrated when she's told she shouldn't fix pipes, wash a car, or build a drawbridge for a school project because "that's not what girls do."
When we connect on Zoom for the video above, Sen. Warren shares what makes Pinkie Promises different from her other work, like Persist, a book of essays released this May. "It's not about grim determination. It's about the joy of getting in the fight," she says. It's a remarkably joyful, almost zany, book, which feels refreshing right now. "It's about the joy of taking the field. It's about the joy of holding up your hand and saying, 'I can do that.'" It's about trying, and feeling good about having tried.
Polly's outlook changes when her mom takes her to a rally for a presidential candidate named Elizabeth, who asks her to "pinkie-promise" to remember that girls can do anything. Their special exchange inspires Polly to be brave on her first day at a new school, to take a pivotal kick on the soccer field, and finally to run for class president — because it's what girls do.
Her last decision gets at some of the urgency behind this book. New research published in the journal American Political Science Review shows that young girls still overwhelmingly think of politics as a male-dominated field. Though the comparative lack of women in leadership positions has faded from mainstream discourse amid the death and infection rates and economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, it was just last year that a record number of women, including Sen. Warren, ran for president. And they each faced sexism in the process.
When she was on the campaign trail, Sen. Warren had a ritual of doing "pinkie promises" with kids she'd meet. She recalls saying, "My name is Elizabeth, and I'm running for President because that's what girls do." This ritual helped inspire Pinkie Promises.
"It was, for me, one of the most important parts of running for president," Sen. Warren says. "I went to 28 different states and Puerto Rico and D.C. and held lots of events, met lots and lots of little girls. So when I dropped out of the race, one of the things I missed the most were all those little girls I'd done pinkie promises with. So I decided I'm just going to write a book for them."
The pinkie-promising actually started back in 2012, when Warren was mulling a run to be the first female U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. "I said, 'Oh, my gosh. I've never done anything like this.' They said, 'You'll probably lose, but you should get in that fight,'" Sen. Warren says. Of course, she won.
The theme of the payoff of persistence is a thread that runs throughout Sen. Warren's books and her major public speeches. (She was featured as the main character a children's book in 2018 called Nevertheless, She Persisted, which echoes her famous line to Mitch McConnell, though Pinkie Promises is the first she's written.) Persistence is key to her work in the U.S. Senate, too.
Sen. Warren has been instrumental in building the Democrats' ambitious COVID-recovery agenda, part of the big budget-reconciliation bill that's currently making its way through Congress. The bill has been the subject of conflict both with Republicans and among Democrats, and lawmakers are still fighting about the size of the package, but Sen. Warren is optimistic about its prospects. The package includes expansions in education, healthcare, childcare, and seeks to tackle the climate crisis.
She explains the universal pre-K proposal: "[If] your income is low, childcare will be free. At the top end, you should never have to pay more than 7%, and the Federal Government will pick up the rest. That's a huge relief for parents and tells parents if you want to work, you can." Another major part is to raise the wages of childcare workers and preschool teachers, who are mostly women and women of color. "We used infrastructure to create good construction jobs for men 40 years ago … Let's create good childcare and pre-K jobs largely for women," she says.
"At this moment, we can't know that we'll get 100% of what we're fighting for," Sen. Warren says. "Shoot, we don't have a single Republican vote in this right now, not a single one supporting any of those changes, but we do have a lot of Democrats on board. We've got a majority in the House and in the Senate. We're trying to push this thing forward, and that makes me really hopeful." Finally, she adds, "We really do have a chance right now to make big structural change, and so I feel hopeful about that."
Accomplishing such an ambitious plan is, of course, an uphill climb. The pandemic has thrown already-precarious caregiving jobs into a tailspin and pushed many parents into impossible double-duty situations. It has also forced millions of women out of the workforce and created a childcare crisis. But Sen. Warren and her colleagues have no choice but to fight, and she says she's already seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Literally today, as you and I talk, I was on the phone. We're negotiating, trying to get the resources, trying to make this happen. We got a real chance to do this one," Sen. Warren says. She points to the huge rescue package passed in the spring as a beacon of hope and a sign of better things to come.
"It's bad out there on climate, on COVID, on abortion rights, but we also have unparalleled opportunities to make our voices heard, to fight back. And that fight is not just punching in the wind, and you feel like it never changes." She adds, "We have our toes right on the line to pass big legislation." Sound expensive? Her plan includes "paying for it by asking those at the top to pay a little more," she says, referencing the real corporate profits tax she's proposed to make giant corporations like Amazon pay their taxes.
As Sen. Warren often likes to tell it, the reconciliation bill is personal for her: She almost quit her first big teaching job after law school because she didn't have childcare. "I busted my tail," Sen. Warren says. "Man, I'm working 80 bazillion hours a week. I'm serving dinner late and lots of boxed macaroni and doing baths at 9:30 at night and laundry at 11 and starting my class preps at midnight. I can do all that. But the part that nearly sinks me — childcare." In comes her Aunt Bee, a 78-year-old widow who arrived on her doorstep "with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy and stayed for 16 years." Of course, not everyone has an Aunt Bee, which is why this legislation is so important. And that takes all of us accessing what Warren calls the joy of the fight.
In Pinkie Promises, that joy comes through in Charlene Chua's illustrations. When it came time to choose an illustrator for the book, Sen. Warren says she was drawn to Chua's "lively," "curious," "funny," and "engaged" girl characters, like Amy in Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao. Chua filled the pages with delightful visual details that you may only notice on a second or third read, which is as engaging for kids as it is a favor to the parents who'll find themselves reading the book over and over again. We won't spoil all of them for you, but know that Bailey, Sen. Warren's burrito-stealing Golden Retriever, has a clever parallel story all to himself, and that a very famous female soccer star makes an appearance as Polly's coach. Sen. Warren says that Chua helped bring her words to life.
At the end of the book, Polly's mom tucks her into bed, leans over to kiss her, and whispers, "Dream big" in her daughter's ear. Polly smiles and says, "Yes, I will dream big. Because that's what girls do." Then, they make a pinkie promise. The message is defiant and may even seem hubristic at the current moment. But Sen. Warren insists that this can be a moment of hope and that those who are able to should get out there and keep trying, like Polly promises to her soccer coach — to give her best kick even if she may not make a goal.
"When you're in the fight, you can feel hopeful," the Senator adds. "Don't sit down, get up and fight."