In her new book, Persist, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren returns to the call for transformational change that was her rallying cry in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. It’s a book, she tells NPR’s Morning Edition, she has been unwittingly writing her whole life.
“I’ve been writing it through every battle, through every fall, every stumble, everything I got wrong and had to come back and try to fix later on,” she says.
In the interview and in the book, she details some of those battles, including her experience with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. When a senior colleague at the University of Houston Law Center made sexual advances, Warren says she felt powerless and vulnerable. Ultimately, she very publicly described what had happened — at the colleague’s funeral, where she spoke at his request. Warren says she realized then that she had moved through it and had regained her power over it and him.
“I tell [the story] in part for every woman who has already been there or who may run into this just around the corner,” she says. “It’s the stories that we now make public that is also a part of making change. It’s the stories that help us learn to persist.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You recount how a more senior colleague of yours chased you around his office, tried to corner you with sexual advances, and then you write to say that you maintained a relationship with him for many years after that — a friendship even, to the point where he asked you to speak at his funeral. You were clearly disturbed by this incident, as you should have been, and yet the relationship kept going.
When women are harassed, even when they’re attacked, they don’t always have the freedom just to walk away and say, “I’m done with you.” There’s a reason that a lot of sexual harassment never gets reported. In fact, that was specifically the advice I got from another senior member of the faculty: Don’t tell anyone.
It was a hard story to write. I revisited the vulnerable young woman who was terrified, not just because it was a question of outrunning him. I could outrun him in his office. It was — what was he going to do to me afterwards? This man held my future. A bad recommendation from him, and I wasn’t going to get tenure. And I had a really shaky time getting that first job when I was hired. I was only the second woman hired at that place. And so he had so much power over me.
And I worked through what it was like as a young woman and then what it was like to teach in the same school with him and then later, when I left, that he would call me, and eventually got my own feet back under me so that I was in a position to say, “I can stand up. You didn’t hurt me.” He didn’t have power over me anymore.
And I tell it in part for every woman who has already been there or who may run into this just around the corner. It’s the stories that we now make public that is also a part of making change. It’s the stories that help us learn to persist.
Did you consider declining his request to speak at his funeral in light of the trauma that he had done to you when you were in the beginning chapters of your career?
I just mean, just consider it, I told him flatly no, that I would not do it. And he pushed back. And as I talk about this story in the book, I told him that if I spoke at his funeral, I was going to talk about what he’d done to me. And that’s when he laughed. And it was a moment for both of us. It seemed pretty clear he not only knew that’s what I’d talk about — he wanted me there. And I realized, yeah, I’m going to talk about this. I’m OK now. I’m fine. And that was the end of the story for me. I stood up in front of a lot of people who knew both of us, talked about the story and laughed about it.
I’m just fine, thank you.
Do you still want to be president?
I want to see change. No, I’m not looking to be president. I want to see us make change. Look, I talked about in the book about being a mother. I talked about being fired because I was pregnant. I talked about what it was like when I couldn’t get child care. What I want to see is change. My daughter couldn’t get child care either, and now if we don’t make change, my granddaughter won’t be able to get child care when she has a baby. And that’s wrong. That’s not the America I want to see us be.
I want to see us be a country where everybody gets a chance, and that includes people who are pregnant and that includes people who have little tiny babies and that includes people who have toddlers and kids who have to have somebody watch them after elementary school. I want to see us be a country that says we’re all going to pitch in a little so that everyone gets a chance.
It is pro forma for presidential candidates to write books as part of their campaign. It is not unusual for someone who loses a campaign to decide that this is the moment to write a book.
I was an author before I was ever a politician. This is my 12th book. But for me, books are a way to have a conversation. I wrote this book sitting in a big old wicker rocking chair, thinking about our country but thinking about the people who are touched so personally by these larger events, by the political decisions that we make in Washington, and how we are touched but we don’t have to be passive. We have the power to shape it. We have the power to say to that guy who chased us around the table, “I’ve taken hold of things and I’m good now and I’m going to make change.”