A LONG TIME ago, an editor called me into his office to tell me I would get a job I really wanted. He chose me, he said, because I was the best person for the position. But he also let me know he planned to tell the man who was not chosen that I was selected because I am a woman.
It hurt. So I understand Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reluctance to attribute her professional advancement to anything but sheer ability. Still, her continued refusal to acknowledge the significance of identifying herself as a minority back when she was an ambitious law professor trying to break into the Ivy League is disingenuous.
The question of Warren’s heritage has resurfaced because she addresses it in her new book, “A Fighting Chance.” In a short chapter entitled “Native American,” she recounts her version of events during her winning 2012 showdown with then-Senator Scott Brown.
The race turned “really nasty,” she said, “with Republicans demanding that I prove who my ancestors were and accusing me of getting my job at Harvard under false pretenses.”
There are two relevant aspects to Warren’s analysis of what she describes as hurtful and unfair attacks. The first addresses what she was told growing up: that her mother’s side of the family has Native American roots. During the campaign, the Globe reported there was no documentation for that assertion. However, it’s hard to argue with family lore.
The second relates to her hiring at Harvard in 1995 and what she considers false accusations that she used her background to get ahead. “I never asked for special treatment when I applied to college, to law school, or jobs,” she writes. “As the story broke and people dug through my background, every place that hired me backed that up 100 percent — including the Harvard hiring committee. Harvard told the media that they didn’t know about my background when they hired me; they offered me a job because they thought I was a good law professor. Period.”
Warren leaves out a decision to begin listing herself in the mid-1980s as a “minority professor” in the Association of American Law Schools staff directory, a fact first reported by the Boston Herald. The directory was used as a recruiting resource for law schools looking to hire minority professors.
In a blog post written for US News and World Report, Brian Walsh, who was communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2012, revisits the controversy and calls upon Warren to release the questionnaire she also filled out for the Association of American Law Schools when looking for a post. He says the form, which currently resides in the organization’s archives at the University of Illinois-Urbana, requires registrants to list education, experience, and ethnicity. Traditionally used by law schools looking to diversify their faculties, it would settle the question of whether her self-reporting extended beyond the staff directory.
Warren was hired at a time when Harvard was under great pressure to diversify its ranks. She has certainly proven over time that she had what it takes, strictly on the merits. But how many graduates of Rutgers School of Law make it to the Ivy League? Wouldn’t her classification as a “minority” have helped her cause?
Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also worked, listed her as a Native American in federal forms they filed. During the 2012 campaign, both schools told the Globe that her supposed heritage played no role in Warren’s hiring (though they might be less forthright about their agenda than my editor long ago). Asked for a response for this column, Warren’s office reissued statements from her past employers saying ethnicity was not a factor in her hiring.
This old issue is unlikely to hurt Warren in any significant way. Brown tried hard to make it a character test, and it didn’t work. But Warren currently has the highest profile of any woman in Congress, if not Washington, and the buzz that goes with it. Even though she insists she’s not thinking about a run for president, others want her to run. Scrutiny of one’s personal background is part of politics.
The more candid she is, the better. It’s about being true to self — and open about what it took for women and minorities to succeed not so long ago.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.