2020 Vision Wednesday: Attacked over her account of losing a job because she was pregnant, Warren shows she's learned how to fight back against Trump

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the SEIU Unions for All Summit in Los Angeles, California on October 4, 2019. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 117 days until the Iowa caucuses and 391 days until the 2020 election.

Almost exactly one year ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced the first big test of her campaign: how to address skepticism — and, from President Trump, mockery — about her long-standing claims of Native American heritage.

It was a test that pretty much everyone, including Warren herself, agrees that she failed. Her candidacy almost didn’t recover.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts senator faced the second big test of her campaign — and this time she took a different approach that seems to be working better. The shift suggests that Warren, despite lingering doubts about her “electability,” has finally learned how to handle the increased scrutiny that her steady rise in the polls will attract — a development that could ease fears among Democrats about how she might stack up against Trump. (She now leads Joe Biden — whose campaign has sometimes seemed at a loss over how to confront Trump’s attacks — for the first time in the Democratic primary polls.)

The second controversy had the potential to damage Warren if only because it was so similar to the first. On Monday, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative newspaper, published a report intended to cast doubt on a central chapter in the story Warren tells about herself on the stump (and in her 2014 memoir, “A Fighting Chance”).

After graduating from the University of Houston in 1970 with a degree in speech pathology and audiology, Warren moved to New Jersey with her then-husband, Jim. She was subsequently hired as a speech therapist by the Riverdale school board. One year later, she says, she was let go.

“By the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant,” Warren writes in her book. “The principal did what I think a lot of principals did back then — wished me good luck, didn’t ask me back for the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.”

According to Warren, it was a pivotal moment for her — one that set her on the path to law school, academia and eventually public service. The Free Beacon, however, found minutes of an April 21, 1971, meeting showing that the school board had approved a second-year teaching contract for Warren — and minutes from a separate board meeting two months later noting that her resignation had been “accepted with regret.”

Others quickly piled on, pointing to a 2007 interview in which Warren didn’t mention being let go by the principal, recalling instead that she “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,’” then ultimately “had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.” CBS News, meanwhile, dug up contemporaneous newspaper clips reporting that Warren was “leaving to raise a family” and had “resigned for personal reasons.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks in SEIU Unions For All Summit on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

According to Warren’s critics on both the right and the left, this was all part of a pattern — bending the truth to make her life story sound a little better, a little sharper, a little more dramatic.

Except that, as Warren quickly pointed out in her response, it wasn’t.

The senator’s initial reaction was mild. “After becoming a public figure I opened up more about different pieces in my life,” she said when CBS News asked why her account had “changed. “And this was one of them.”

But on Tuesday she came out swinging.

“When I was 22 and finishing my first year of teaching, I had an experience millions of women will recognize,” Warren tweeted. “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.

“This was 1971,” she continued, “years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination — but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours.”

Then Warren tweeted a link to a New York Times story about how “pregnancy discrimination is rampant inside America’s biggest corporations”; by the end of the day, she’d posted a four-and-a-half-minute video in which she read personal accounts of pregnancy discrimination sent in by followers.

Many other women — including public figures such as actress Amber Tamblyn, writers Lyz Lenz and Ej Dickson, and Dr. Jennifer Guntershared their stories as well.

In other words, Warren not only owned her story of pregnancy discrimination and refused to back down in the face of criticism — she tied her experience to other women’s, and in doing so made an important point. In 1971, pregnancy discrimination was rampant, in New Jersey and elsewhere; as one retired Riverdale teacher told CBS, “The rule was at five months you had to leave.” (Warren’s first child, Amelia Warren Tyagi, was born in September, so the likeliest explanation is that the school board didn’t know she was pregnant when it renewed her contract in April; presumably, it was a routine vote that didn’t require her to be present.) It wasn’t until June 1972 that the state’s civil rights division ruled that “pregnant teachers can no longer be automatically forced out of New Jersey’s classrooms,” and it wasn’t until 1978 that Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and outlawed the practice nationwide.

The fact that Warren’s departure was couched at the time as a “resignation” — and that she herself was reluctant to publicly characterize it as discrimination as recently as 2007 — doesn’t mean she had a choice about it. Such discrimination might have been the norm, but it was an unspoken norm; women have long internalized such mistreatment. The whole idea of the #MeToo movement is that they don’t have to internalize it anymore — that they can “open up,” as Warren put it.

And that, in turn, highlights the political potency of Warren’s response. Last year, she made the Native American controversy all about her, and not about the larger community it touched or the deeper issues it raised. This time she did the opposite.

Electability is an amorphous, undefinable thing, but polls have shown that it’s “inherently a harder fight for women presidential candidates.” That Warren was able to immediately reframe an attack about her past as an attack on women in general — and a rallying cry for a constituency whose support she will need to win next November — shows she has the dexterity to transform what threatens to be her greatest weakness (i.e., her gender) into a real strength.

A lot of Democrats might see that as the definition of electability.

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