Excerpt from Chapter 1:
A Gilded Past
On January 28, 1975, the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., swarmed with politicians, diplomats, and the press. They gathered for a dinner, sponsored by the Washington Press Club*, at which the newly elected Congressional Class of 1974 was introduced. This year was of particular interest because these new representatives were voted into office as a result of the public backlash from the scandalous Watergate affair. Change was in the air. Never before had there been such a high turnover in Congress. The American people had spoken. Their message was loud and clear. They wanted new blood in the nation’s capitol and they got it.
Six first-term members of Congress, including Senators John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Gary Hart (D-Colorado), were selected to address the thousand people at the event. Four of the six speakers were Democrats, two were Republicans, and only one was a woman.
As the guests were enjoying their meal, a tall, slender woman with long silver hair pulled back in a bun eased behind the podium. Her outfit was well-tailored, like the woman herself. She stood with poise and began to speak.
At first only a few listened with interest, but it was not long before all eyes fixated on this woman. Many in attendance were unfamiliar with the freshman Congresswoman standing before them. They did not expect much, but it did not take them long to learn that this sixty-four-year-old grandmother, Millicent Fenwick, was someone they would not soon forget.
As Fenwick spoke, her voice resonated with confidence, sincerity, and determination. She had the type of voice that could captivate any audience. Many have compared her commanding voice to that of Katharine Hepburn. Both spoke slowly, enunciating every word. Rep. James Collins (R-Texas), one of Millicent’s Congressional colleagues, once told her that she was the most outstanding character he had ever known in Congress and that he was enthralled with her oratory skills. "You will probably be remembered most for your command of the Queen’s English," he told Millicent, "There is no one that can equal your vocabulary, pronunciation, and clear cut presentation when you speak. You are the number one voice of English in America." As it turned out, Collins was only partially right. Fenwick was known for her speaking prowess, but she is best remembered for many of her distinctive traits—such as smoking a pipe or her frugal nature, despite being a millionaire. But many also remember her determination to rid the world of injustice.
At the Washington Press Club dinner, Millicent shared one of her favorite anecdotes with the crowd. In a patrician-like manner, she carefully recounted one of her male colleague’s objections to the Equal Rights Amendment being debated in the New Jersey assembly in which she served. "He said he liked to think of women as kissable, cuddly, and smelling good." Without missing a beat Millicent responded in her aristocratic voice, "That’s the way I feel about men. I only hope for your sake that you haven’t been as disappointed as often as I have."1 When Millicent first uttered those words she was a junior member of the assembly, but clearly had no qualms about speaking her mind, something her congressional colleagues would soon learn.
The rest of Millicent’s remarks that evening were peppered with tales about her first few days as a member of Congress. She did not shy away from the fact that her Republican Party had just suffered a landslide loss in the November elections. Instead she capitalized on it. "As a Republican," Millicent said, she found the House restful, since "we [Republicans] are very few and we know each other. We don’t struggle for committee chairmanships. We never get knocked out, because we’re not in."2 Her sense of humor made Millicent an instant hit. Among the people whom she met that evening was Sen. George McGovern (D-South Dakota). After hearing Millicent speak, the former Democratic presidential nominee introduced himself. "We spoke for awhile," said McGovern, "and I came to a conclusion right then and there that she [Millicent] would be of special value to Congress—a Republican, but one with broad and humane views that would make her attractive to Republicans and Democrats."3 After that night everyone knew who Representative Fenwick was. And they quickly learned that she was much more than the pipe-smoking grandmother she had been portrayed as. Her wit and feistiness charmed all and were something to be reckoned with down the road.
*The Washington Press Club merged with the National Press Club in 1985.
1Millicent Fenwick: A Lesson in Leadership, interview with Steve Adubato, Caucus NJ, WNET and United Artists Cable, 1991, videocassette.
2Jean M. White, "A Debut of Sorts for Freshman Congressman," Washington Post, 29 January 1975.
3George McGovern, telephone interview by author, 16 January 2002.