WASHINGTON — When Senator Elizabeth Warren on Sunday told a national television audience a personal story of sexual harassment from her days as a young law professor, she described a harrowing incident that left her shaken. She said that she wondered if she’d done something to deserve it and that she told no one but a close friend.
But the tone of her telling, recounted on NBC’S “Meet the Press,” appears to be inconsistent with the reportedly more lighthearted manner in which she described the same incident two decades after it occurred, during the memorial service for the senior University of Houston faculty member she accused of pursuing her around his office.
During the service after his death in 1997, Warren spoke fondly of law professor Eugene Smith and told the gathered mourners she was laughing as Smith chased her around his desk, according to a colleague’s memoir. The writer of the memoir, however, now says he might have treated the incident too lightly.
Warren, in a short interview with the Globe Monday, suggested she shared the story at the memorial service as a statement about Smith’s authority.
“It was 20 years later, and he didn’t have power over me anymore,” she said. By then, she was a Harvard law professor.
She did not directly answer when asked if she spoke fondly of Smith at his memorial or if she told mourners she was laughing as Smith tried to grab her in his office.
“I made it clear that I was just fine,” was all she said.
The contrasting accounts would appear to highlight the evolution of Warren’s approach to dealing with the episode. That evolution took place amid changing attitudes about harassment and increasing empowerment of women to speak up.
First, at a time when such behavior was often ignored, she was a young female professor chased around an office by a senior male colleague in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and she chose to bury all mention of the incident; then she was the accomplished Harvard professor returning to memorialize her tormenter in the 1990s, going public about his behavior but apparently making light of the incident; and finally the US senator citing the incident to make a point about women needing to stand up to abusers.
In a taped segment for the Sunday morning news show, Warren described how a senior faculty member — whom she did not name — chased her around his office, “trying to get his hands on me.”
Warren told “Meet the Press’’ that the incident left her shaking and shocked and that she told only her best friend what had happened. “Never said a word to anyone else,” she said.
She did not mention that Smith had suffered from polio, which affected his mobility, nor did she mention she spoke at his service.
Warren was interviewed about her experience with sexual harassment along with three other female senators as part of NBC’s coverage of the #MeToo campaign. The hashtag has come to symbolize the scope of workplace-related sexual harassment after reports detailed numerous allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Warren told the Globe Monday she was conflicted about speaking at Smith’s service. He had asked her to do so while he was dying, she said.
At the service, Warren “described Gene’s chasing her around the desk in uncontrolled lust while she laughed, equally uncontrolled, as she avoided his crab-like grasp,” John Mixon, a former colleague of Warren’s at the University of Houston Law Center, wrote in a 577-page book, called “Autobiography of a Law School,” a memoir that chronicles the law school’s history.
Warren told the Globe she made the trip to the memorial service “because I was fine, and I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t,” she said.
She added that she hadn’t seen Mixon’s description of her relationship with Smith before the Globe inquired about it, but she pointed to a phrase — “she would have none of it” — that Mixon used to describe her attitude toward Smith’s advances.
“That was a good description of how I felt at the time he chased me around the table,” Warren said.
When she told NBC she’d never said a word about the incident, Warren said, she meant she had never reported it to the University of Houston administration, other senior faculty members, or other officials who might have taken action against Smith.
“I wore a lot of brown. I tried to handle it on my own, just to stay out of his way and to be as far away as I could,” she said in the Globe interview.
“But yeah, years later I feel bad that I didn’t speak up. But that’s why it’s so important for women to stand up together and speak out together. . . . I did the best I could at the time,” she continued.
In an interview with the Globe, Mixon, who is 84 years old and retired, said Warren, at the service, told of her experience trying to escape from Smith’s advances as a fond, matter-of-fact story. He said it was the first time he had heard about the incident.
But in retrospect he worries he may have treated it too lightly in his book and said he is now unsure if Warren said she was laughing while Smith chased her, as he wrote.
“I think I may have been wrong in saying she was laughing,” he said, noting he was writing about the memorial service 15 years after it took place.
“I do have a little discomfort about describing it lightly in my book,” said Mixon, who described himself as close friends with the now-deceased Smith. “Probably more lightly than it should’ve been treated, certainly, in today’s retrospective world.”
According to Mixon’s book, Warren also remarked during the service on how some faculty members disliked Smith so much they “refused” to come to the service.
Jacqueline L. Weaver, who was a colleague of Warren’s and is still a professor at the Houston Law Center, was among those who declined to attend. “Ah yes,” she said when asked if she had run-ins with Smith, but she declined to elaborate, saying she didn’t want to emphasize them.
“He was just kind of an obnoxious fellow. He’s long dead,” Weaver said.
She said she had never discussed Smith’s behavior with Warren.
Mixon, in his book, describes Warren and Smith as becoming “fast friends” early in her time at the Houston Law Center, after Smith took her out to lunch at her faculty interview, a second story he says Warren told at the memorial service. Smith ordered a steak and then pushed the plate in front of Warren when it arrived, telling her to cut it up for him. “Can’t you see I’m a cripple?” he said. “Sure. But I thought you knew that when you ordered the steak,” she retorted, causing him to laugh.
Warren said she was not close to Smith, as Mixon suggested.
Mixon said in the interview that Smith had a reputation among his colleagues for making sexual overtures, but people generally did not take it seriously and viewed him with pity because of his physical condition. He wrote in the book that Smith’s polio allowed him to walk with difficulty but deteriorated later in his life.
“It was not unlike Gene to do that sort of thing,” Mixon said. “Everybody sort of regarded Gene as an anomaly. No one treated him as a predator.”
Peter Linzer, a law professor who was hired at the center in 1984, said Smith was a “good ol’ boy” type who smoked and drank in his office and hardly played by today’s rule book on office comportment.
“I wouldn’t put it past Gene Smith,” he said of the incident with Warren in Smith’s office, which Linzer said he was aware of but doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about it.
At the time, “that was sort of like a New Yorker cartoon of the boss chasing the secretary around the desk. It wasn’t taken terribly seriously,” he said. “Today it’s quite different.”