Elizabeth Warren faced sexism, shed a husband and found her voice teaching law in Houston

She faced sexism, split with a husband and found her voice teaching law in Houston
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the Capitol in 2017. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

HOUSTON — Elizabeth Warren hadn’t set foot on the University of Houston Law Center campus in nearly 15 years, not since she’d left her first full-time teaching job there.

But on a mid-September morning in 1997, Warren, by then a celebrated professor at Harvard Law School, returned to memorialize a man who had played a small but not insignificant role in her teaching career.

The five years Warren spent in this sprawling Texas city were among the most transformative of her life. She split with a husband who struggled with her ambition. She started dabbling in the research that would establish her as one of the nation’s foremost experts on consumer bankruptcy law. And she found her voice, developing the speaking style that has made the senator from Massachusetts a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Houston is where Liz Warren became Elizabeth Warren.

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Now she had been asked to eulogize longtime UH law professor Eugene Smith, who, as head of the faculty hiring committee in 1978, had been an early Warren champion, urging colleagues to look past her limited teaching experience and what some perceived as her second-rate Rutgers Law School degree.

Smith, who died of complications from the polio he contracted as a child, had specifically requested that Warren speak at his funeral. But what she said inside a small campus chapel stunned her former colleagues.

With a smile on her face and humor in her voice, Warren described how Smith had invited her to his office one day just a few months after she had been hired. He shut the door and lunged for her, she said, and as she protested, he chased her around his desk before she was able to escape out the door.

“Everyone was slack-jawed,” recalled John Mixon, a retired UH professor who had been close friends with Smith and Warren. Among those listening: Smith’s ex-wife and his three adult sons.

In the pews, people exchanged glances. Some at UH disliked Smith — he’d kept a bottle of Scotch in his desk and often told dirty jokes, one colleague remembered later — but “Mean Gene,” as he was known, was generally regarded as harmless. Diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, Smith walked hunched over, his arms increasingly useless as he aged. Some wondered whether it was physically possible for Smith to have done what Warren described.

“To have this image of him chasing her around the desk, it was just comical, and she told the story without rancor,” Mixon recalled.

Her account wasn’t entirely new to him. While Warren had not shared all the specifics, she had gone to Mixon looking for help when she said Smith came on to her that day in early 1979.

Four decades later, Mixon recalls with mixed feelings what he told her: Say nothing. “My advice was that she was brand new in the business,” Mixon said. “He was an established old-guard professor with a lot of power. And if she tried to get him, she would be the one in the long term to suffer because she would become known as a troublemaker.”

Warren nodded, and as he advised, she said nothing. Not when Smith continued to flirt with her. Not when he commented on her appearance. Not when she packed up her office in the spring of 1983 to move on to bigger and more renowned schools.

Warren said nothing until she returned to UH to eulogize a man who had been both a promoter and tormentor, a man who, as she put it in an interview, “no longer had any power over me.”

At Smith’s funeral, Warren told the story in an entertaining way. Two decades later, she would recount it again in a 2017 interview on “Meet the Press,” presenting it as her own sobering #MeToo experience with sexual harassment.

By then, the times had changed, and so had she.

‘Testing her’

The University of Houston Law Center was in a period of transition when Warren interviewed there in 1978.

At the time, the law school had just one full-time tenured female professor, but the number of female students was soaring. The faculty was trying to inject the place with new blood — younger, fresher faces.

Warren was almost 29, and she knew the campus. A decade earlier, she had dropped out of college to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren. She followed him to Houston, where he had been hired to work as a computer engineer for IBM. She took undergraduate classes at UH — tuition was just $50 a semester — until they moved to New Jersey.

Elizabeth Warren in 1970 in a University of Houston photo. She returned there to teach in 1978. (UH)

Warren earned her law degree from Rutgers just before giving birth to her second child. She got her foot in the door at UH by offering to teach legal writing, classes viewed by most law professors as grunt work.

Gene Smith, who had talked to Warren by phone, met her at the airport, picking her up in his white 1966 Lincoln Continental. His post-polio syndrome was getting worse, and the damaged muscles in his arms were making it harder to drive, but Smith stubbornly refused to give up the car.

He took her out to dinner with a few others on the hiring committee. They went to his favorite restaurant, a steakhouse called The Stables.

In a story that quickly made the rounds among the faculty ― and that Warren later retold at his funeral — Smith ordered a steak, even though his arms were so weak he had trouble cutting it into smaller pieces. The waitress usually helped, but this time, when the steak arrived, Smith pushed the plate over to Warren and ordered her to cut it up for him.

“I guess it was his way of testing her to see how easily she would be manipulated,” Mixon recalled.

Warren just stared at Smith.

“Can’t you tell I’m crippled?” Smith told her.

“I thought you knew that when you ordered the steak,” she coolly replied.

Everyone at the table laughed, including Smith, who advocated for Warren to be hired.

Sitting at that table full of men who smiled as Smith pushed the steak her way, she knew what she would have to endure to teach. “I knew it from the first minute,” Warren said.

She also knew that as a woman who had graduated from a lower-tier law school, with limited teaching experience and two young children at home, she was not a top prospect.

“I had no other options,” she said.

As Warren had anticipated, some questioned her academic background. “Rutgers isn’t a top law school, and for your first job, it really matters where you went to law school,” said Richard Alderman, a UH professor emeritus who was on the hiring committee that year. “But when you met her, she had this personality, this energy. … You knew, just by talking to her, she was going to be successful.”

Warren was hired as an assistant professor, a full-time tenure-track position that included not only legal writing courses but also contracts and commercial law. Warren said she could not remember whether her status as a wife and mother came up in her interviews for the job, but she specifically requested to teach complex financial courses because she thought it might help her be taken more seriously by her colleagues. “I figured if I could manage this, no one would question whether a young woman with two little children belonged,” she said.

According to personnel records released by the Warren campaign, her pay that first year was $20,500 — not much more than the $8,000 a semester she had been paid to teach legal writing one night a week at Rutgers. Strangely, the UH faculty candidate profile also asked for her height and weight: 5-foot-7 and 115 pounds.

When you met her, she had this personality, this energy. … You knew, just by talking to her, she was going to be successful.
Richard Alderman, a UH professor emeritus who was on the hiring committee

With her chin-length pageboy, similar to the hairstyle she wears now, she looked younger than 29.

“I was constantly reminded that I didn’t look like a real law professor,” Warren said.

Her colleagues frequently mistook her that first year for a secretary, the school nurse or even a lost student when they saw a woman wandering through the faculty office suites.

If Warren saw herself as a trailblazer for women in law, she has never acknowledged it. Her mother had long warned her, she has said, about becoming “one of those crazy women’s-libbers.” And according to those who knew her at the time, Warren, then a Republican, did not espouse feminist beliefs.

But in an interview, Warren recalled being acutely aware of her status as one of the only women on the staff.

“The faculty members themselves, often the men, treated me as if I were a second-class citizen,” she said. “It was a lonely experience.”

Warren taught at several schools after leaving UH. Here she speaks with a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. (Leif Skoogfors/Corbis/Getty Images)

‘Warren in the making’

For UH law students, Warren was one of their first instructors, teaching contracts, a fundamental course that tends to determine whether a student has a mind for the law.

She was a practitioner of the Socratic method, cold-calling on students and asking them to discuss the particulars of a case or a legal opinion. She believed it forced students to pay attention, encouraging them to think, engage and analyze ideas.

Warren taught in a large lecture hall that resembled an amphitheater. She had about 60 students in her contracts class. And Warren knew by looking at their faces that she wasn’t connecting with them in the way she wanted.

“She came in thinking that students were at a higher level of preparation than they were, and she would teach as if they automatically read the cases and knew what she was talking about,” Mixon said.

Mixon had won multiple teaching awards, and Warren went to him for advice.

Three days a week, after Warren’s contracts class, they would go to lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Over chips and guacamole, she told him about exchanges with students in which she felt she had struggled, and Mixon would analyze and offer help.

He suggested she try to read her class better and present ideas in a more approachable way — not to dumb it down but to use scenarios that would encourage someone who did not yet have the expertise to grasp and engage.

Some people, especially those cowering in the back, “were scared sh--less of her,” recalled Tracey Conwell, a Houston litigation attorney who took contracts and several other classes with Warren.

She knew all their names and had no obvious method for how she called on them.

At one point in the semester, Conwell recalled, a group of her classmates drew up bingo cards with students’ names as they sought to game out Warren’s strategy. “They tried to see if they could guess who would be called on to speak that day,” she said.

One day, Conwell remembered, she and Warren sparred over the philosophical meaning of the word “intent” in contract law, and Warren abruptly cut her off. Conwell was so mad she went to the dean to complain. But the next class, Warren gave Conwell a book: “The Death of Contract,” a controversial 1974 publication that questioned the basis of modern contract law. After that, she said, she and Warren “were buddies.”

“It made clear to me that she was an obviously insightful thinker who had read more than the standard books to arrive at her own concepts about how the law works,” Conwell said. “She didn’t accept things at face value. She did her own looking to understand how we got to this system we had. … And that approach, I think, helped her take this really complicated and dreadfully boring stuff and make it really interesting.”

Michael Olivas, a longtime UH law professor who was hired after Warren, recalled sitting in on her classes and being stunned by how good she was. “She was not Elizabeth Warren yet, but she was Elizabeth Warren in the making,” Olivas said.

Warren played on a softball team at the UH during the years she taught at the law school. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Harrison)

Many of her students recognize the same techniques and speaking style at work on the campaign trail. Even her raised arms are familiar.

“It just feels the same when you see her on television and she’s trying to explain something and she says, ‘Look, it’s like this,’ or she gets very animated and says, ‘Here’s the thing,’ ” said Rita Lucido, a Houston family-law attorney who took classes with Warren. “I don’t look back and think of contracts as this dry subject, because she made such an effort to keep us engaged with her and to make sure it made sense to us not only from a legal perspective but a real-world perspective.”

Warren was younger and less stuffy than the men on the faculty. She painted a wall in her office a bright green and hung a large wicker porch swing, inherited from her grandmother, where she would sit and prepare for classes and talk to anyone who came by.

Warren also seemed human. Dona Bolding, who was in Warren’s 1979 contracts class, recounted the time she was shopping at Loehmann’s, the discount department store known for its marked-down designer clothing, and ran into Warren standing in her underwear in the store’s communal dressing room.

Bolding said she was “mortified.” But Warren instantly made light of the situation. “Oh Miss Bolding,” Warren called out. “I see you love a bargain! ”

‘The breaking point’

Warren loved her job. To keep it, she realized she would have to maintain a good relationship with Smith, while also deflecting what she described as increasingly inappropriate behavior from him.

He regularly sat in on her classes, evaluating her talent as a professor. He wrote memos to the law school dean and others as part of the process to determine whether she would be promoted from associate professor to tenured faculty member. He was, in many ways, the gatekeeper to her future.

But, according to Warren, he was also increasingly a harasser: He commented on her clothes and appearance in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. He told dirty jokes and invited her out for drinks, which she declined. She had to get home to her family, she reminded him, hoping he would get the hint.

Warren thought she was managing him until that day in early 1979 when she said he lunged for her in his office.

I wasn’t afraid of him physically so much as I was afraid of what I knew he could take away from me.
Elizabeth Warren, on Gene Smith

She considered punching him in the face, she said in an interview. But she thought of his evaluations, his sway with the dean and how the school still had not decided whether her contract would be renewed.

“If Gene wanted to sink me, he could,” she said. “If he had said, ‘She’s not very good. Let’s push her out the door,’ I would have been gone. And so, when he chased me around his office, I wasn’t afraid of him physically so much as I was afraid of what I knew he could take away from me.”

Warren already instinctively knew silence was her only real option, even before Mixon told her. “That kind of thing was in the air,” she said. “Keep your head down and move on. And that’s what I did.”

As Warren was trying to hang on to her job at UH that first year, her life at home was falling apart. She was trying to balance the pressures of being a new professor, under intense scrutiny, with being a wife and mother. And she was failing.

“My world was stretched to the breaking point,” she said.

She would cook breakfast for Jim and her two kids, Alex and Amelia, and then head to school, where she was balancing classes, research and everything else. She would get home around 5, sometimes get dinner on the table around 7 or 8 and stay up past midnight, preparing for classes the next day. And then she would do it all over again.

“Child care nearly brought me down,” Warren often says, until her mother’s sister, Bess Reed Veneck, came to Houston from Oklahoma to help out with the kids.

Bess Reed Veneck — Aunt Bee — with Warren's children, Alexander and Amelia, circa 1978. (Warren campaign)

But Aunt Bee, as the senator calls her, couldn’t fix what was wrong with Warren’s marriage. By Warren’s telling, she and Jim never really fought. He just gave her looks — when dinner was late or when she was up all night grading exams.

When they were on their high school debate team together, Jim had been drawn to her because she was smart and driven, Warren remembered. Now he seemed to yearn for a more traditional wife. But she had become a different person than she was at 19, when they married.

“I think we were both shocked by who I turned out to be 10 years later,” Warren said. “He thought I would be someone else, and truthfully, I kind of assumed that, too. I kept changing and growing almost despite myself.”

Teaching law, Warren said, “was when the whole world opened up for me.” It was impossible to put her ambitions back into a box and close it away, not even to save her marriage. “I wanted so much to do the work,” she said. “I wanted to do the work, I wanted to be a good mom, I wanted to be a good wife but didn’t manage all of that.”

I think we were both shocked by who I turned out to be 10 years later. ... I kept changing and growing almost despite myself.
Elizabeth Warren

One night, Warren recounted in her memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” she asked Jim whether he wanted a divorce. She was shocked she said it. But he didn’t appear to be. “Yes,” he replied.

Jim moved out and into an apartment in southwest Houston, according to public records. She and the kids stayed in the family’s suburban home. The couple separated sometime in early 1979. Warren has never said exactly when, though she later wrote in her memoir that “there were reconsiderations and some attempts at one-more-try-to-make-it-work.”

Her family watched the kids that summer as Warren traveled to Florida to attend a conservative law and economics retreat. One of the other attendees was Bruce Mann, a professor and legal historian at the University of Connecticut.

Both have described a moment of instant attraction. It’s unclear when the two officially became a couple, but Warren has said she visited him that fall in Connecticut. And he came to see her in Houston.

Warren kisses her husband, Bruce Mann, at an event in Columbia, S.C., in June. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Warren filed for divorce from Jim on Nov. 5, 1979. The divorce was finalized on Jan. 16, 1980. Jim agreed to pay child support that increased by 5 percent a year, as well as contributing to their kids’ college educations, an unusual detail even now, according to Susan Myres, a former Warren student at UH who is now a top divorce attorney in Houston. The agreement, Myres said, reads as if it was written by “a future consumer advocate in the making.”

While Warren has been careful to call her ex-husband “a good man,” she has occasionally hinted at bitterness. After their divorce, Jim quit smoking, took dance lessons and got remarried, she wrote in her memoir.

“We didn’t see him much,” she said. He died of lung cancer in 2003 at 58.

While Jim had struggled with Warren’s ambition, Mann embraced it. The two were married in July 1980, shortly after Warren’s 31st birthday, and Mann gave up his tenure-track job and moved to Houston, where UH gave him a one-year teaching contract. Warren was awarded tenure and named assistant dean of the law center. But by 1983, she was packing up her office and taking down her porch swing. Warren, her second husband and her two children were heading to the University of Texas Law School in Austin, leaving Houston behind.

‘A homecoming’

On a hot summer day this past July, Warren walked back through the hallways of UH, the place where it all began for her. She pointed out her old office, the classrooms where she taught.

“This is a homecoming for me,” she later told a crowd of more than 2,000 people who had lined up for hours to hear her speak. This was where she had gotten her first real job. “Full time, tenure track,” she said. “It still sounds so good to say it.”

Forty-one years earlier, she had turned heads for looking so out of place. But this time, people knew her instantly. They ran up to shake her hand. She was Elizabeth Warren, the woman running for president.

Warren with husband Bruce Mann after addressing the crowd at her reelection victory celebration in Boston in 2018. (Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

Design by Tyler Remmel. Photo editing by Bronwen Latimer. Edited by Lynda Robinson. Copy editing by J.J. Evans.

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