Millicent Fenwick: Not So Modern Any More

Republican Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick looks and speaks like an aristocrat. She wears designer clothes and expensive pearls and comes from New Jersey's fashionably rich Fifth District, where kids learn fox-hunting instead of touch football. Yet, she doesn't belong to the Nancy Reagan-Betsy Bloomingdale school of patrician politics. She has neither time nor patience for the charity-ball circuit where rich Washingtonians raise money for good causes by paying $1000 to be seen in their Halstons. And when she speaks in that throaty, well-bred voice, she talks passionately about the poor--and her concern for them.

She mentions the flood of constitutents who write asking for her help--like the young woman who must leave her mother to the care of a nursing home, because she can't afford to keep her in her own house. As Fenwick's voice gets louder and more desperate describing the predicament, it seems that the Congresswoman has never really accepted the unfairness of life. She tackles the problems just as they come to her, one by one, trying to correct one injustice before moving on to the next. Only, as she says, "There just isn't enough time to do it all."

"She has this kind of genteel compassion and it's real," says one admirer. "It's sad that there aren't more like her." Indeed, there are very few like Fenwick. Like Lacy Davenport, the Doonesbury character modelad after her, she roams around the House floor clutching her big red handbag and charging to the microphone when the occasion calls for it. Long interested in social problems, she fought for civil rights years before it became fashionable. She warned of the bad housing conditions in Newark before riots there broke out. As vice chairman of the New Jersey advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, she often attended Black and Hispanic rallies and went into the homes of the poor to discuss their problems.

"Look, guys," she once scolded a group of legal aid lawyers. "Everybody here always signs out at 4:30. Now I know that the elevator can't hold this entire office at once. Doesn't anyone ever stay behind to listen to Mrs. Alvarez when she walks in at 4:45 and wants to talk about the problems she's having with the kids and the rent money?"

Fenwick's familiarity with the problems of poor people should not be surprising. She has also felt the pressure of making ends meet. Odd circumstances led to the daughter of a rich New Jersey banker funding herself in the depressed job market of the late 1930s.


Pulled out of school at age 15 to accompany her father, who had been appointed ambassador to Spain by President Calvin Coolidge, her formal education stopped then, although she attended a European convent for a month and later took courses at Columbia University's New School for Social Research. "At that time, women weren't encouraged to get an education," she explains.

So she educated herself, reading widely and becoming fluent in Spanish, French and Italian. After returning to the U.S. in 1929, she studied philosophy under Bertrand Russel at Columbia, where the two became fast friends and weekly dinner partners. But Fenwick didn't appreciate Russell's anti-American sentiments, and the friendship soon ended.

Although she didn't need to work, she began modeling for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. In 1934 she married Hugh Fenwick, but the marriage ended in divorce four years later, a matter she regards to this day as a personal failure. Left with two children and a load of debts, she had little choice but to go hunting for work. The Depression was still on. She finally got a job as a feature writer for Vogue, but only after a long search that opened her eyes to the problems of the poor. One department store refused to let her sell stockings at the counter because she hadn't graduated from high school.

Not even her closest relatives knew the extent of the struggles she endured while supporting her family on $2400 a year. Only when the need to pay delinquent taxes forced her to sell her house did her aunt telephone her for an explanation.

"Oh, you know how scatterbrained I am," Fenwick recalls saying. "I just forgot to pay the taxes."

She stayed with Vogue for 14 years, authoring the Vogue Book of Etiquette in 1948. But by 1952, when the family real estate interest had risen considerably and she received a belated inheritance from her mother, she left Vogue to take up the leisure activities women of her upbringing found time to indulge in. But a life of needlepoint, bridge and gardening couldn't satisfy Millicent Fenwick; she took up local politics with a vengeance, volunteering her services to Clifford Case's bid for the Senate and service as vice chairman of the state Republican party.

Such volunteer activity satisfied her for more than a decade. Then in 1969 she won a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly, where she championed such un-Republican causes as civil rights, prison reform, consumer rights and conservation. One of her most memorable incidents involves her proposing the Equal Rights Amendment before the legislature.

"I just don't like this amendment," a colleague protested. "I've always thought of women as kissable, soft and cuddly, smelling good."

"But that's the way I've always thought about men," Fenwick shot back. "I just hope for your sake that you haven't been disappointed as often as I have."

After a stint as the state Director of Consumer Affairs, she decided--at the age of 64--to run for Congress. Her victory against a 37-year-old opponent only amused the media flaks, who deemed it a "geriatric triumph."

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