About a week ago, David Byler of the Washington Post irritated Elizabeth Warren fans and some members of the media by arguing that “many journalists either match the demographic profile of her base or live around people who do. . . . Warren’s view of politics closely matches the prevailing media view of what politics ‘should’ be.”
As if to prove Byler’s point, days later the Washington Free Beacon published a damaging scoop about the end of Warren’s early 1970s tenure as a grade-school teacher in Riverdale, N.J., and the mainstream media circled their wagons.
On the campaign trail and social media, Warren has claimed that her employment in Riverdale was effectively ended by her pregnancy, using the anecdote as a way of connecting with female voters:
When I was 22 and finishing my first year of teaching, I had an experience millions of women will recognize. By June I was visibly pregnant—and the principal told me the job I'd already been promised for the next year would go to someone else.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 8, 2019
It’s a neat story — as it turns out, a little too neat. The Free Beacon went back and found the minutes of the Riverdale Board of Education’s 1971 meetings, which make clear that in April of that year, the board unanimously offered her a second-year contract, and that in June, her resignation was “accepted with regret.”
When Beacon reporter Collin Anderson reached out to the Warren campaign for a response, it didn’t offer one. Instead, it talked to CBS News, which published a piece the next day with the headline, “Elizabeth Warren stands by account of being pushed out of her first teaching job because of pregnancy.”
The article began by repeating Warren’s account of being fired for being pregnant, and adds that “recently, several media outlets have questioned the veracity of these claims.” Way down in the eleventh paragraph, it finally elaborates: “The Washington Free Beacon reported on a transcript from contemporaneous local school board meetings, also obtained by CBS News.”
The other wrinkle in Warren’s account is that, as the Beacon noted, in 2007 she did an interview at UC Berkeley and described her departure from the school differently:
My first year post-graduation I worked in a public-school system with the children with disabilities. I did that for a year, and then that summer I didn’t have the education courses, so I was on an “emergency certificate,” it was called. I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, “I don’t think this is going to work out for me.” I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.
The Beacon reported that the November 1970 Riverdale school-board minutes “confirm Warren’s account that she was working on an ‘emergency’ teaching certificate, showing unanimous approval ‘that a provisional certificate be requested for Mrs. Elizabeth Warren in speech therapy.’”
In response, the campaign offered this vague explanatory statement from the candidate to CBS News: “After becoming a public figure I opened up more about different pieces in my life and this was one of them. I wrote about it in my book when I became a U.S. Senator.” In other words, Warren would have us believe that in 2007, while speaking at Berkeley as a tenured Harvard Law School professor, a former vice president of the American Law Institute, the author of a critically acclaimed book, and a prominent commentator on economic and legal issues, she felt uncomfortable saying that she had been dismissed from her first job for being pregnant. Did she think the Berkeley crowd was going to take the side of the school administrators? Did she think they were going to boo her?
In addition to burying the Beacon’s scoop in its own story and dutifully relaying Warren’s vague response, CBS attempted to “add” to the story by talking to a pair of retired teachers who said that maybe it could have happened.
Two retired teachers who worked at Riverdale Elementary for over 30 years, including the year Warren was there, told CBS News that they don’t remember anyone being explicitly fired due to pregnancy during their time at the school. But Trudy Randall and Sharon Ercalano each said that a non-tenured, pregnant employee like Warren would have had little job security at Riverdale in 1971, seven years before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed.
No one, of course, is arguing that it’s impossible a Riverdale teacher could’ve been dismissed for being pregnant in 1971; they’re merely questioning, with good reason, whether that’s what happened in Warren’s case — whether she is inaccurately describing a moment she claims, over and over again, was a turning point in her life. The version of the story Warren told at Berkeley — that she decided that pursuing a career in childhood education just wasn’t for her — isn’t all that dramatic or likely to win voters’ sympathy. The version she’s taken to telling on the campaign trail — that she was a good teacher helping needy children before a sexist school board broke its promise and fired her because she was pregnant — is quite the opposite.
At best, we’ve got the candidate who’s arguably the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination changing her story about her first job; at worst, she’s rewriting her personal history to paint herself as a victim of sinister patriarchal forces because it makes for a better and more politically useful narrative.
To the extent the mainstream media discussed this story, it mostly expressed anger that the Free Beacon dared to question Warren’s version of events. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan called it a “narrowly factual” “unfair” “smear.” Eric Lach of The New Yorker sniffed that “the Free Beacon didn’t have a scoop; it had an innuendo.” Vogue declared, “If you think Elizabeth Warren is lying, you’ve never been a woman in the workplace.” (This will be quite a surprise to Free Beacon editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson.) PolitiFact just couldn’t come up with any conclusion, other than “At the time, it was common for women to be forced out of teaching jobs after they became pregnant.”
After the not-so-accurate tales of her Native American heritage, the “well, it could have happened that way” defense isn’t good enough.